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Small Fish Pose Big Questions About Fishing

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Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior naturalist John Page Williams watches the waters for menhaden. The foundation would like to see the threshold for overfishing menhaden lifted from 8 to 15 percent, and the stock built back to 30-40 percent of what it would be with no menhaden fishing at all.
Jessica Gould
Chesapeake Bay Foundation senior naturalist John Page Williams watches the waters for menhaden. The foundation would like to see the threshold for overfishing menhaden lifted from 8 to 15 percent, and the stock built back to 30-40 percent of what it would be with no menhaden fishing at all.

Menhaden are an important species of fish for the Chesapeake Bay area, both in terms of their value as industrial commodities and bait, but also as a link in the greater coastal food web. According to John Page Williams, a naturalist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, menhaden have hit a crisis point, a fact which is prompting the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to consider increasing the threshhold for what is considered "overfishing" of the species of forage fish.

"Right now the science is telling us the menhaden are at their lowest point that we have ever recorded," says Williams.

Toni Kerns is a coordinator with the ASMFC, which makes rules about when -- and how much -- fishermen can catch. "Currently we’re at an eight percent maximum spawning potential and we’re proposing moving to a 15 percent maximum spawning potential," she says. That means there would have to be at least a 15 percent stock of reproducing menhaden in the waters, compared to what there would be with no fishing at all. 

Omega Protein Inc. relies on menhaden to make its products, which range from omega-3 fish oil to fishmeal and organic fish solubles. Spokesperson Ben Landry says it's unclear if the menhaden stock is actually at a crisis point, and he says he's not sure the change would actually mean more adult menhaden. The effect on business, he says, is much clearer. 

"We do know a harvest restriction without a doubt will have an impact on menhaden fishermen and stakeholder groups within the industry," he says. 

The Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission is accepting public comment on the threshold increase proposal through Nov. 2. The Atlantic menhaden board will make a decision on the issue Nov. 9.

 

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