The Average, the Plain and the Smelly

Saving the smallest — though significant — marine species

Cast-netted menhaden

Cast-netted menhaden

Hordes flock to protect the playful bottlenose dolphin, the chubby manatee and the long-suffering turtle, but who looks out for the average, the plain, and the smelly? Consider the oily menhaden.

Sometimes, no one rallies for the ground crawlers and the chum baits. In many cases, only a dedicated few speak out. But this past week, a panel of management officials from the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission made a historic decision for menhaden. And, most impressively, those officials were joined by an amazing number of angling conservationists. Of the nearly 92,000 menhaden comments the commission received, a great majority favored harvest reductions.

On Wednesday, the commission’s menhaden board chose to begin managing the species throughout its range — after more than a century of growing commercial harvest — by changing the reference point for the overfishing threshold and adopting a target. The target chosen will require a 37 percent reduction in harvest when implemented, the Coastal Conservation Association reported.

Applause from fishing and environmental groups came immediately. This little fish has a huge following. Not only do menhaden feed the most valuable game fish on the East Coast, they also feed seabirds and marine mammals. The commercially harvested menhaden become omega-3 fatty-acid pills and farm animal/pet food. Recreational anglers net them for bait and grind them for chum.

The main commercial/industrial harvester, Houston-based Omega Protein, had not published a press release or issued comments on its website by midday Thursday. Omega had, of course, engaged a full-court press opposing potential harvest reductions. In today’s sputtering economy, the company had valid internal concerns.

But the conservative voice spoke louder. It stood up for the little (silver) guy. It put its foot down and reasoned that without restrictions, none of the current stakeholders could expect access to this tiny powerhouse for much longer.

We’ve reached a tipping point with menhaden. And that’s a predicament to which we must become more accustomed. The exponential growth of our species crowds the very existence of more and more animals — many of which have no spokesman.

So here are the take-home questions for future debates: Based on what we know, are we good stewards for (fill in the blank)? Can we afford to be? Can we afford not to be?

(In the interest of full disclosure, my husband is a member of the Menhaden Management Board and the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. However, I am writing my opinions exclusive of his.)