Menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay Face an Uncertain Future | Civil Eats

The Last Front in the Battle to Save the ‘Most Important Fish’ in the Atlantic

Fishermen, environmentalists, and residents say the Chesapeake Bay’s menhaden population is likely suffering. The last big company that’s catching them disputes the evidence and is pushing back.

Photo credit: Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr

Menhaden are caught with pound pound nets and hauled aboard Captain Boo Polly’s workboat on the Chesapeake Bay, west of Barren Island in Dorchester County, Maryland, on June 27, 2020. (Photo by Carlin Stiehl/Chesapeake Bay Program)

Off the rocky coast of Maine, small, silver Atlantic menhaden are now so abundant that harbor seals, bluefin tuna, and bald eagles chase them into harbors, delighting fishermen. Along the sandy shores of Long Island and New Jersey, the return of massive schools are contributing to an increase in predators such as striped bass, dolphins, and humpback whales, which propel their giant bodies out of the water into the air, inspiring local artists and driving a sightseeing economy.

It’s a rousing success story for a species that American settlers greedily netted for fertilizer, oil, and animal feed starting as far back as the 1800s, until once-teeming coastal waters were nearly emptied, and the larger fish and birds that depended on menhaden suffered in their absence.

According to an interstate regulatory agency’s recent assessment, the region’s menhaden are no longer overfished. But a happy ending is not yet guaranteed for the creature dubbed “the most important fish in the sea” or the ecosystems it supports.

“In the last 10 years, [menhaden’s] range is expanding and the population is growing . . . but these fish are very vulnerable to exploitation and they could definitely be locally depleted or eliminated,” said forage fish expert Ellen Pikitch, the executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University in New York.

Further south, in Virginia’s coastal waters, recreational anglers, conservationists, and others worry that the menhaden population may be waning.

“[Menhaden’s] range is expanding and the population is growing, but these fish are very vulnerable to exploitation and they could definitely be locally depleted or eliminated.”

Inside the Chesapeake Bay, the last remaining industrial menhaden fishery on the Atlantic coast is still operating at a massive scale: A single company, Omega Protein, partners with Ocean Harvesters’ fleet of purse seiners to take about 250 million fish annually from the Chesapeake Bay and 500 million more from the ocean just beyond. Omega Protein processes the fish into oil and meal that is used to feed pets and farmed fish, chickens, and pigs.

Virginia’s catch—which makes it the second-largest fishery of any kind in the country by volume, second only to Alaskan pollock (of fish-stick and Filet-O-Fish fame)—is controversial because it represents about 75 percent of the menhaden caught along the entire coast. And despite the bay’s unique ecosystem and role as a nursery for young menhaden, there has been no comprehensive evaluation of whether or not local menhaden stocks are being overfished.

Fishermen who have spent decades on the water chasing striped bass argue the predators aren’t getting enough to eat, and new research suggests the magnificent ospreys that spawn in the lower bay can no longer snag enough of the oily prey in their talons to keep their young alive.

Efforts to protect the menhaden, and the larger Chesapeake ecosystem, are coming from a wide range of groups and span legislation, litigation, and scientific research. Conservation groups and anglers especially want to rein in Omega’s haul or evict them from the bay altogether.

According to Omega Protein and Ocean Harvesters spokesperson Ben Landry, if advocates succeed at forcing them to only net fish outside the bay, it would shut down the company entirely. And it would be based on claims about local depletion that are speculative, he said, given the lack of conclusive data.

“This large-scale depletion of the forage base year after year after year is obviously having some kind of impact, but we don’t know exactly what it is because of so many years of political pressure by the industry to not answer those questions,” said Jaclyn Higgins, a forage fish program manager for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP), one of several groups that organized a petition in 2022 to move the fishery out of the bay at least until more data on localized impacts is available.

More than 10,000 people signed the petition, which was delivered to Virginia governor Glenn Youngkin a little over a year ago. Last year, with little to show for that effort, TRCP shifted its focus to supporting legislative attempts to fund and complete a study focused on the menhaden fishery’s impacts on the bay.

“Something needs to be done,” Higgins said.

Managing the Fishery

Biologist-turned-lawyer David Reed agrees with that general sentiment, but he’s tired of the government moving at a snail’s pace. Case in point: In February 2023, state legislators passed a law that required the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) to lay out a plan to evaluate the health of the bay’s menhaden population and the fishery’s impacts.

In October, VIMS researchers released the plan, with a $3 million price tag. In December, Governor Youngkin failed to include funding for executing the plan in his budget. In January, legislators introduced a new bill to fund it.

Reed calls the drawn-out, inconclusive process “a proposal to make a plan for a study,” especially since VIMS estimates that completing the research will take at least three years.

As the process drags on, he said, a single company could harvest a billion menhaden.

Reed is the executive director of Chesapeake Legal Alliance (CLA), a Maryland-based nonprofit that provides legal services to organizations working to protect the Chesapeake Bay watershed. CLA regularly takes on cases that tackle issues like industrial pollution and stormwater runoff. But last year, Virginia’s management of the menhaden fishery rose to the surface, when Reed filed both a lawsuit against the state agency tasked with regulating fishing in Virginia and a petition for rulemaking.

“The jewel of an estuary that is the Chesapeake Bay dies by 1,000 cuts. Runoff from municipalities, agricultural operations, industrial sectors—it all adds up,” Reed told Civil Eats. “Within that, you have this keystone species. The charismatic megafauna eat it, not to mention it’s a filter feeder. So, it’s one of the most important species we have locally, and it’s essentially just being ignored.”

Menhaden (also referred to as bunker, pogie, and other names) belong to a category called forage fish. In 2012, Stony Brook’s Pikitch led a task force that defined, for the first time, the critical importance of these fish within marine ecosystems and outlined recommendations for managing forage fisheries with a different, more precautionary approach than is used for fish further up the food chain.

Courtesy of Save Our Menhaden

Courtesy of Save Our Menhaden

“Forage fish are so critical from an ecological and ecosystem health point of view that we recommended that if you don’t already have a fishery going on a forage species, don’t start one,” said Pikitch. To her surprise, that recommendation took hold, and some states, including California, Washington, and Oregon, passed laws banning new forage fisheries.

Menhaden’s star power is its ability to convert energy from the sun into food for a wide swath of ocean creatures. The small, oily fish fatten up on phytoplankton (and zooplankton) as they travel in dense, sprawling schools, creating a concentrated food source for bass, bluefish, dolphins, and whales. Further below, crabs nibble on menhaden scraps from other creatures’ meals that fall to the bay floor. Above the surface, ospreys, cormorants, and bald eagles dive into the fray to participate in the feast.

Their schooling behavior also makes them a prime target for purse seiners, boats that drop nets the size of three football fields below the water and then encircle the schools, cinching their “purses” closed. Since the middle of the 20th century, companies have used spotter planes to locate the schools, dramatically increasing the ships’ efficiency.

Based on growing evidence of their importance, the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) began setting an annual catch limit in 2012. In 2020, it took another step, incorporating what are called “ecological reference points” into its assessments. That means it considers impacts on some other species before determining whether menhaden are overfished.

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But advocates and researchers say there are still big, problematic limitations at play.

First, the “total allowable catch” (TAC) is set for the whole coast, but about 75 percent of the allocation is given to Virginia, since the surrounding states have all banned menhaden reduction fisheries—a term that denotes a catch that is reduced into other products, like fish oil and fish meal in the case of menhaden. (Most allow smaller catches for bait.) ASFMC also sets a cap, currently at 51,000 metric tons, for how many menhaden can be taken from the bay alone, but that number is based on historic catches, not menhaden stock data.

ASMFC fishery management plan coordinator James Boyle said that since the commission has found no evidence of overfishing, the bay cap represents a “precautionary” approach. But he acknowledged that the ASMFC’s evaluation cannot point to how the local menhaden population is faring. “There’s no way to say from the models, the surveys, and data that are available, ‘this is the exact abundance in Chesapeake Bay.’”

That’s the issue, said Higgins at TRCP. While she gives the commission credit for using what she calls “cutting-edge” fisheries management along the coast, she adds, “We need to add the spatial component into the model.”

What’s at Stake

Higgins’ is an especially common and compelling argument because the Chesapeake Bay is considered one of the most important estuaries in the world. And in 2022, despite decades of efforts and billions of dollars spent to clean it up, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation gave its health a D+.

Local fishermen and researchers are most concerned about potential impacts of menhaden depletion on striped bass (also called rockfish) and ospreys.

“There can be more than one reason that a species is in trouble, just like there can be more than one reason a person can be sick [and] . . . as the forage fish go, so do their predators.”

Last year, Virginia and Maryland regulators both recorded a major decline in young striped bass. But while fishermen who spend time on the bay say menhaden are sparse and attribute some of their disappearance to the decline of their food source, regulators say the science points to the bass fishing industry as the main culprit. For example, Boyle at the ASFMC said the commission set the menhaden catch based on what is needed to adequately support the striped bass population.

Of course, all of the threats are interconnected, and if menhaden availability is not at the top of the list, that doesn’t mean more of them wouldn’t help more bass make it. “There can be more than one reason that a species is in trouble, just like there can be more than one reason a person can be sick,” said Pikitch. And when you look at the overall research, “as the forage fish go, so do their predators.”

While the ASFMC does consider striped bass in its assessment of how many menhaden should be netted, it doesn’t consider the health of ospreys.

Michael Academia has been studying those striking sea hawks alongside other researchers at William & Mary’s Center for Conservation Biology for several years. “For millennia, humans have been using birds to help us locate fish,” he explained. “The ospreys are definitely telling us a sad story here.”

During the breeding season, which starts in April, Academia and his colleagues steer their boats next to the large nests and use a mirror pole to peer inside. They look to see if the nests are active, if the adults are feeding their young, and if the young survive.

An osprey in flight with a freshly caught menhaden in its talons. (Photo by Abeselom Zerit, Getty Images)

An osprey in flight with a freshly caught menhaden in its talons. (Photo by Abeselom Zerit, Getty Images)

In recent years, they’ve noted low reproductive rates in breeding areas in the lower bay, near where the menhaden reduction boats operate. In 2023, he said, they monitored 167 nests and only 17 were successful in producing 21 young ospreys. At 0.13, the reproductive rate is far below the 1.15 the population needs to sustain itself.

Last year, they published the results of related research into ospreys’ access to forage fish. They provided extra menhaden for some birds to feed their young and found that the nests that did not receive supplemental menhaden had a reproductive rate of .47— less than half of what they need to be sustainable—while the rate for those that received extra fish increased to 1.13.

While osprey populations are doing well globally, Academia said, the bay’s position as a breeding ground for the migratory birds shouldn’t be underestimated. “If fishing pressure on menhaden within Chesapeake Bay persists, osprey productivity rates could decline precipitously, threaten population stability, and eventually lead to widespread population collapse,” he and his colleagues concluded in the study.

The Path Ahead

Whatever the nuances of the impacts, David Reed is sure of the case he’s making, and he is prone to talking with his hands to emphasize the details.

“It’s always, ‘Well, we need more data! But we don’t have the data!’” he said, with exasperation.

In February, despite what appeared to be unanimous support for the study that would help solve for that, state lawmakers shelved the bill to fund it, meaning it won’t be considered again until 2025.

As Reed sees it, something needs to move the ball forward, and legal action is a sure path. Both the lawsuit and petition for rulemaking filed by CLA hinge on Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC)’s responsibility to not only “prevent overfishing” in its waters, but to also manage its fisheries’ “conservation and management measures” based on sound science.

But each year, VMRC simply confirms the Chesapeake cap on menhaden set by the ASMFC, which is not based on population data at all. “They haven’t managed below that ceiling by one fish,” Reed said. “They go right up to the absolute maximum every year.” In other words, how could they be doing the due diligence that the law requires? VMRC did not respond to requests for an interview.

On February 5, VMRC closed public comments on the petition, which requests a moratorium on commercial menhaden fishing in the bay until up-to-date, localized data on the menhaden population is available. It also asks VMRC to require Omega Protein to permanently shift more of its catch further offshore into federal waters, with exceptions for stormy weather.

More than 1,000 people have commented on the petition, with significantly more in support of the moratorium than opposed.

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CLA expects VMRC to issue an official response in a couple of months. Reed is also waiting to hear on the latest ruling in the legal case, in which Omega Protein recently moved to intervene.

That’s no big surprise, because while conservationists and recreational anglers have been pushing for more regulation of the menhaden fishery for decades, they say Omega Protein generally pushes back and comes out on top.

Owned by Canadian seafood giant Cooke Seafood, Omega spends liberally to represent its interests in Virginia’s halls of power. Currently, the Virginia Public Access Project lists seven lobbyists hired by the firm, six of whom work for McGuireWoods, a firm so powerful with the local political class that it has been called “the shadow government” of Richmond.

Since 2020, the company donated $25,000 to Youngkin’s Super PAC and $25,000 to his inaugural committee. (It also donated $8,500 to Youngkin’s Democratic opponent before he lost the election; Omega’s annual donations, in general, don’t follow party lines.)

In 2022, after TRCP and its nearly two dozen ally groups, including the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, Tidewater Charters, and the Coastal Conservation Association, delivered their petition to Youngkin, the governor’s office finally began to pay attention. This was at least partially spurred by the fact that during the previous year Omega’s fishing boats had spilled hundreds of thousands of dead fish in two separate incidents, leading to dead menhaden and red drum fish washing up on local beaches.

Youngkin proposed a slight increase in regulations, including 1-mile buffers along the bay’s coastlines where purse seines would not be allowed to operate. It was far from the moratorium the coalition was asking for, but they supported it a positive step forward.

Then, at the public meeting when commissioners were scheduled to vote on the regulation, the buffer plan was introduced as a “memorandum of understanding” rather than a regulation. “Now, it’s just a gentlemen’s agreement with no enforceability,” said Higgins.

When asked if Omega was behind the change in plan, Landry said, “We participated in the public process just like they did, and our opinion was that if you make this a memorandum of understanding, it could be adjusted a lot easier than regulation.” He was adamant that because of constraints posed by rough seas, pushing the company out of the bay would mean its ruin. “A 145-year-old fishing company ceases to operate if that happens,” he said. Omega and Ocean Harvesters employ about 260 people in Virginia, some in union jobs, and one estimate put the economic value of the fishery at $57 million in 2020.

“It’s not just the fishermen and charter boat captains. You’re talking about hotels, motels, restaurants, marine supplies, bait and tackle . . . that are all reliant on a healthy bay and fisheries.”

Reed said the jobs are important, but he and others believe the local economic impact is overstated, especially given how profits flow out of the country. Plus, as the petition for rulemaking argues, if the reduction fishery is also reducing predators and therefore impacting recreational fishing, the negative economic impacts could be significant.

In 2020, a federal agency estimated Virginia’s recreational fisheries supported close to 3,500 jobs and generated hundreds of millions of dollars in direct income and added value. And while CLA estimates Omega Protein pays tens of thousands of dollars in fees to the state to operate its fleet, recreational fisherman add more than $1 million in fees each year to state coffers for conservation.

“It’s not just the fishermen and charter boat captains. You’re talking about everyone that goes out. You’re talking about hotels, motels, restaurants, marine supplies, bait and tackle . . . that are all reliant on a healthy bay and fisheries,” Reed said. “The economics around all of that are astounding.”

Now, many sport fishing groups are holding their breath, waiting to find out the outcome of the lawsuit and how VMRC will respond to the petition.

Last year, Ocean Harvesters debuted two brand new boats, and ASMFC raised the quota for the coast, allowing the company to catch more menhaden. But when asked if change will come to the Chesapeake as the fishing season begins this spring, Reed doesn’t hesitate. “We’re counting on it,” he said.

Meanwhile, further north, where menhaden don’t get ground into meal and oil, Ellen Pikitch points to an often overlooked factor. While other Atlantic states did pass laws banning reduction fisheries one by one, regulation was not originally what kept menhaden out of the industry’s grip. “The original reason the reduction industry stopped [in those places] was purely economic. There were no fish,” she said.

In fact, Reedville, Virginia, where Omega Protein is based, is named after Captain Elijah Reed (no relation to David at CLA). He was a menhaden fisherman who, after the fish disappeared from Maine, left home in pursuit of the storied abundance of the Chesapeake Bay.

Today, the tables could be turning as advocates like Higgins look to the resurgent ecosystems in the north for inspiration. “It’s a telling case study for what the Chesapeake Bay could be and what it likely was 100 years ago,” she said.

Lisa Held is Civil Eats’ senior staff reporter and contributing editor. Since 2015, she has reported on agriculture and the food system with an eye toward sustainability, equality, and health, and her stories have appeared in publications including The Guardian, The Washington Post, and Mother Jones. In the past, she covered health and wellness and was an editor at Well+Good. She is based in Baltimore and has a master's degree from Columbia University's School of Journalism. Read more >

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Join the conversation.

  1. Great story. Thanks for a good overview and bringing the importance of a healthy bay into the conversation. I've been on the bay observing the decline of fishing and wildlife for over 40 years and it's getting really bad.
  2. John Kustka
    Thank you for putting this always distressing situation to light. As an avid fisherman who doesn't really target Bay species but lives just several miles from its shores I pay attention to the political circus surrounding the regulation of the rockfish industry. The lobbyists are powerful and seem to get their way- whether they be representing the commercial harvesters or the charter captains. Maryland waited too long years ago to rein in the striped bass industry and several years of moratorium resulted. They may have learned their lesson and are tightening regulations this year. Hopefully Virginia will one day adopt a species-first attitude when it comes to menhaden policy. Extinction is forever.
  3. Andrea Steegmayer
    Thank you so much for writing this article and the insight it brings. Please bring follow up to this important environmental story
  4. JOHN CASTELLUCCIO
    No one ever mentions the tens of thousands pounds of gamefish ‘incidentally killed! Here in Louisiana, these two pogie companies (Omega and Daybrook-Canadian and African registry) themselves reported ( WITHOUT ON BOARD ADVISORS) over TWO BILLION pounds of caught pogie with a State-allowed 5% by-catch…go figure 5% of TWO BILLION pounds of game fish destroyed in one particular. Just recently, one of the company boats lost and LEFT IN THE WATER one net containing an estimated 800, 000 pounds of total catch to rot on the a Louisiana beach… that company was “fined $25,000”! This was not the only incident during the past three years! Instances of charter fishing boats being encircled by their purse seine nets all within 150 yards of the shore with a known limit of the then legal limit was 1/4 mile!
  5. Tommy Peters
    Maybe when the river herring left we could have saved things. It is always somebody else who is at fault. So long as humanity has anything to do with it this will just matter not at all. The problem is not porgy boats it is people.

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