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  • Ken Perrotte

Conservation Partnership Webinar Assesses Menhaden Management in Atlantic and Gulf

Updated: Nov 9, 2020

A shorter version of this article ran in the July 23, 20202 issue of the Fredericksburg Free Lance-Star.

striped bass menhaden management

The Virginia General Assembly shifted fisheries management of menhaden from the politicians to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission earlier this year, remedying years of dissatisfaction among many in the sportfishing industry who were concerned about overfishing and potential impacts to species such as striped bass.

Menhaden are often called the most important fish in the ocean, especially the coastal ocean. To use a biologist’s term, menhaden “transfer energy upward.” They are filter feeders that help clean the water by consuming phytoplankton (including algae) and zooplankton. They are also an important forage species for larger fish.

Last year, Omega Protein, which operates a reduction fishery and is headquartered in Reedville, Virginia, exceeded by nearly 20,000 metric tons an established Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission 51,000 metric ton catch limit for the Chesapeake Bay.

A reduction fishery "reduces" whole fish into fish meal, fish oil and fish solubles.

The overfishing prompted United States Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross to concur with an ASMFC finding that Virginia was noncompliant with Amendment 3 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden.

Ross declared a menhaden moratorium in Virginia waters, effective June 17, 2020. To escape the moratorium, Virginia had to implement and enforce the 51-ton cap before June 17.

Virginia, under new menhaden management, complied and enacted new regulations for the 2020 fishing season, setting the cap at nearly 36,000 metric tons. The 15,000-ton reduction was designed to reflect the fishing overages in 2019. The VMRC indicated the 2021 cap will return to 51,000 metric tons, if catch limits this year are honored.

Atlantic menhaden

Photo by Frank Marenghi, Maryland DNR

An Atlantic & Gulf Coast Issue

Menhaden, as an issue, is not going away, even with Virginia’s legislative and regulatory actions. At last week’s virtual ICAST (International Convention of Allied Sportfishing Trades) show, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership held a webinar on the topic. Chris Macaluso, TRCP’s Center for Marine Fisheries director, moderated the session. Virginia Secretary of Natural Resources Matt Strickler, Chris Moore of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and David Sikorski, executive director of the Coastal Conservation Association-Maryland and Mike Leonard of the American Sportfishing Association participated.

The panel applauded Virginia’s move, with Leonard noting the change should result in a more open, transparent process with better public input. “Before, you waited for the General Assembly to tell you what would happen,” he said. Moore said he believes menhaden over-fishing in the Chesapeake Bay has occurred for at least 20 years. Sikorski said Maryland banned industrial purse seining (the large nets Omega uses) as far back as 1931. Both spoke of problems in the bay related to with algae and too many nutrients, creating dead zones. Filter feeders such as menhaden are essential, they said.

Why should recreational anglers care?

striped bass menhaden management
Good old days of striper fishing!

Macaluso referenced studies that show industrial netting of menhaden could be responsible for 30% fewer striped bass, which he called the “most important recreational fish in the United States.” Macaluso lives in Louisiana, another area where Omega operates a vibrant reduction fishery. He said 1.5 billion pounds of menhaden are taken off Louisiana and Mississippi every year.

Bycatch, the issue when non-target species are scooped up in nets and killed or “released” nearly dead, is a major concern. Macaluso said some reports show between 50,000 and 70,000 spawning-sized redfish killed annually as bycatch in the Gulf of Mexico. “It’s a staggering number,” he said, adding some estimates show menhaden fishing in the gulf may be reducing redfish and speckled trout populations by as much as 50%.

Macaluso said conflicts between recreational anglers and commercial menhaden harvesters are common. He said he has witnessed recreational anglers trying to fish as commercial anglers move in, deploy their industrial equipment and collect menhaden, scooping up gamefish along with them.

Leonard said he knows many recreational anglers simply want the reduction fishery to go away. “I don’t think that will be a recommendation,” he said. Strickler said menhaden management in Virginia is now science based and with VMRC, where he said it belongs. “It (previous management by the legislature) was unacceptable,” he said. “A responsibly managed commercial menhaden fishery is something the governor (Ralph Northam) supports,” Strickler said, adding he does not see any net ban coming.


The discussion included inevitable comparisons between recreational fishing’s economic impact versus commercial fishing. In some regions, one sector may dominate more than the other. Nationwide, according to 2016 statistics in NOAA’s 11th Fisheries Economics of the United States report, saltwater recreational fishing supported 472,000 jobs, generated $68 billion in sales impacts across the economy and contributed $39 billion to the Gross Domestic Product. The commercial fishing and seafood industry (harvesters, processors, dealers, wholesalers and retailers) supported 1.2 million jobs, generating $144 billion in sales impact, and adding $61 billion to the GDP.

Omega Protein moved its headquarters from Houston, Texas, to Reedville this year. The company was purchased in 2017 by Cooke Inc., of New Brunswick, Canada for about $500 million. Omega is now “foreign owned,” but that fact seemingly cannot be found on its website. About 250 jobs are connected to the operation in Reedville, said Strickler, noting you cannot discount the large local impact.

One of Cooke’s other businesses is a Nova Scotia salmon farming operation. Fish meal derived from menhaden is a common food for farmed salmon and the press release announcing Cooke’s purchase of Omega Protein noted, “The animal feed ingredients produced by Omega Protein are an important component in Cooke Aquaculture’s production of healthy Atlantic salmon, making this acquisition a strategic move that greatly enhances Cooke’s vertical integration.”

Responding to a question from the audience, Macaluso said he recognizes a market exists for products derived by rendering menhaden but pointed out many of these markets are outside of the United States. He questioned if removing this resource to the detriment of American waters to provide benefit to other countries was wise. “Is it better for us to leave those fish in the water and get the ecological and economic benefit up the food chain? Does that outweigh the benefit we’re getting from removing billions of pounds of these fish from our coasts every year? This needs to be part of the discussion,” Macaluso maintained.

As an alternative source for fish meal, Macaluso suggested companies look at Asian carp, a problem fish exploding in number across much of the Mississippi and Tennessee River systems.

Other panelists noted this issue – the end use of a fishery product – is not one really suited for the ASMFC.

The ASMFC is revising Ecological Reference Points that will inform future menhaden stock thresholds. Moving to broader indicators, such as considering the diversity of fish that rely on menhaden, is expected to let managers take a more holistic approach.

Menhaden management will likely be a front burner issues for conservation advocates and commercial fishing interests for some time to come.

The Outdoors Rambler uses menhaden to first catch blue crabs in traps/pots and then uses menhaden to feed them while they're in holding traps down along the Lower Potomac River near the Chesapeake Bay.


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