The tiny Atlantic menhaden, often called "the most important fish in the sea," plays an essential role in marine ecosystems from Maine to Florida. The fish is a food source for wildlife such as whales, dolphins, ospreys and eagles, as well as valuable fish species like tuna, cod, striped bass and tarpon.
The population of Atlantic menhaden surviving to one year has plummeted to less than 10 percent of historic levels and are now at a record low point. Despite this, hundreds of millions of menhaden are still hauled in and ground up, removed from their ecosystem each year, mostly to be used in fertilizer, pet food, feed for agricultural animals and farm-raised fish, and as dietary supplements for people.
By weight, more menhaden are caught than any other fish along the Eastern seaboard. A single company operates a fleet that each year scoops up about three-quarters of the entire East Coast catch—more than 410 million pounds annually. Most of that catch comes from the Chesapeake Bay, an important habitat for juvenile menhaden.
Scientists suspect that the ecological impacts of dwindling menhaden may be widespread. Studies of osprey and striped bass have revealed that menhaden has declined as a part of the diet of these predators. Striped bass are showing marked signs of stress, malnutrition, and disease. The shortage threatens the East Coast's marine food web and could cripple commercial and sport fishing industries. Striped bass fishing alone generates $6.9 billion and 68,000 jobs for the commercial and recreational fishing industries on the East Coast.
Despite its documented impact, menhaden fishing continues at levels that are destructive to the ocean ecosystem. Safe fishing targets have been exceeded every year but one since 1955. As a result, people who value our oceans, concerned scientists, and Pew called for a plan to conserve the last remaining menhaden.
In Nov. 2011, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission made a significant step in the right direction by voting to increase the menhaden population to four times the current size.