A Small Fish With Big Problems

NOTE: This is a guest post from Lee Crockett, Director of Federal Fisheries Policy at the Pew Environment Group.

This post is part of Pew’s Overfishing 101 series. Previous posts can be viewed here.

Anglers like me are often impressed with size. We seek out the largest fish, revel in stories about the “big one” that got away, and proudly display photos of our most impressive catches. But it’s a small, unassuming fish, the Atlantic menhaden, which forms the backbone of ecosystems and economies along the East Coast of the United States. Unfortunately, after decades of poorly regulated fishing, menhaden are in serious trouble.

Take action to help this important little fish!

The good news is that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which manages the fishery, is poised to take historic steps to restore this valuable species. When the ASMFC meets next week in Boston from November 7-10, it will consider the many ways menhaden are used: for commercial products such as omega 3 fatty acid pills and factory farm feed; as bait for commercial and recreational fishermen, who target larger fish; and, most importantly, as a pillar of the East Coast marine food web.

Menhaden were once abundant along the Atlantic seaboard, forming schools up to 40 miles long. These giant “pods” made up a central link in ocean ecosystems along the East Coast, providing a primary nutrition source for larger fish, seabirds and marine mammals.

Americans rely on many of the predators that eat menhaden. We consume tuna, cod and striped bass. Entire communities depend on income derived from recreational fishing, as well as wildlife and bird watching. There are plenty of ecological and financial reasons why this small animal is often called “the most important fish in the sea.”

Unchecked and Unmanaged

Menhaden InfographicBy weight, more menhaden are caught than any other fish on the East Coast, and about three-quarters of this catch comes from the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding ocean waters. A single factory in Reedville, Va., takes in and grinds up this haul, reducing it to fish meal and oil destined for dietary supplements, fertilizer, farm animal feed and pet food.

Because menhaden are mainly caught in state waters (less than three miles from the beach), they are managed by the ASMFC and are not governed by the requirements of the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which I’ve described in earlier posts. There is no catch limit for Atlantic menhaden, only an unenforceable cap, with no accountability measures in place.

The ASMFC has defined safe fishing targets for menhaden, but surprisingly, no action plan is in place that requires fishing boats to meet them. Consequently, menhaden populations have plunged to less than 10 percent of historic levels, but there is still some confusion over whether the species is actually overfished. That’s because the ASMFC’s definitions of “overfishing” and “overfished” are different from those of the regional councils that manage fisheries in federal waters.

Menhaden FishingHere’s the bottom line: although the ASMFC has set safe fishing targets for menhaden, it has never required fishing to stop when those levels were reached. This benchmark has been exceeded every year since 1960; the fish hasn’t caught a break since Eisenhower was president.

It is time for the ASMFC to step up and take responsibility, set sustainable and enforceable fishing limits, and allow menhaden to rebound. The disappearance of this critically important fish is affecting the entire ecosystem. Studies show declining amounts of this species in the diets of birds and other fish. Some of these animals are already showing signs of malnutrition, signaling a threat to the entire Atlantic marine food web. For example, you can’t talk about striped bass anymore without noting the impact of menhaden’s decline.

The Public Asked for More Fish in the Water

This fall, the ASMFC held 13 public hearings along the East Coast and listened to more than a hundred fishermen, scientists, local stakeholders, and those with commercial interests who provided presentations and testimony explaining why depleted menhaden stocks need to be rebuilt.

To answer this public outcry and save this small but important fish, the commission should embrace the strongest rebuilding goal on the table: a fourfold increase in the population. By doing so, the ASMFC would follow the best scientific advice for managing key prey species such as menhaden. Delaying decisions or maintaining the status quo—another option still on the table—is not scientifically or ecologically defensible.

Commercial fishing should not jeopardize the health of marine ecosystems, recreational fishing opportunities, or public resources. As with other fisheries, we need to focus on sustainability and provide everyone on the Atlantic coast with ample fish, both big and small.


Read the rest of the Overfishing 101 series here.


Photo Credit: NOAA


W. C
W. C2 months ago


William C
William C2 months ago

Thank you for the information.

a             y m.
g d c5 years ago

wow - never even heard of menhaden...

Citizen G-Karl
Karl Heinemann6 years ago


I reluctantly agree that we can't just "tell" people not to have children, because, YES, they are an important part of the world. The phrase "too much of a good thing", however probably is a salient factor in the depletion of this fish species, as well as restoring the proper balance between human society and nature, and the fair balance of economic prosperity among different groups of humans.

~Dictating~ hard limits on child-births probably won't work, because the desire for children appears to be quite a strong human drive, ~TOTALLY APART from sexuality~, which, IMHO, also has an important social-bonding function. But through education, I believe that we also could foster changes in our social values that honor and support people who choose to refrain from bringing more children into the world, and those who can feel content having just a small family. And I believe that the need to cap and, ideally reduce the human population on planet Earth is pressing enough that we should develop some social and economic incentives that reward people who choose to keep their "families" very small or to spend their lives "child-free".

mac m.
mac m.6 years ago

any attempt to ameliorate the menhaden situation may come too late if we wait for the government to act. fishers, small and large might get together and enter into a legally binding contract once they agree on what limits ought to be. or perhaps only a fisherman's agreement? (don't ask about the limits; knowledgeable folk would have to answer that).
of course, there's a possibility not every fisher can be convinced and so abstain from the contract and become rogue fishers of unlimited catches. maybe the suasion of the moral majority will bring them around.
whatever comes of this at least one citizen effort will be made to right our listing ship-of-state.

Victoria Pitchford
Vicky P6 years ago

@ Shel: You really can't tell people to not have children, children are an important part of this world, and we aren't a fascist country :) China's one Child policy is Fascist and shouldn't be allowed. About the fish problem, someone needs to do something about it, and the government needs to get their ass moving.

Shel G.
Shel G6 years ago

I remember seeing the schools of menhaden from a pier in North Carolina. Everything followed them: bluefish, mackerel, sharks, etc. Without these little fish, the big fish starve.

Good article, thanks for sharing. I only wish that there was some mention of the main cause of depletion of menhaden stocks: overpopulation. There's too many humans on this planet and it's the cause of everything - climate change, loss of habitat, pollution, toxic waters, depletion of natural resources, etc. -- that affects wildlife.

People need to have fewer (or no!) children, and if they have kids, they need to be educated about the importance of limiting their family size.

Marilyn L.
Marilyn L6 years ago


Bill K.
Bill K6 years ago

more people need to start viewing these animals that live in the sea not as "seafood" but as "sea life"