The Cost of Killing Tiny Fish

Recreational anglers want a strong supply of Atlantic striped bass. They say that means protecting the tiny menhaden too.

A net of menhaden
Andrew Caballero-Reynolds / AFP / Getty

This article was originally published by Hakai Magazine.

Over the week of July 4, 2022, people flocking to Chesapeake Bay’s Virginia coast were met at the water’s edge by hordes of ghastly visitors: hand-size silver menhaden washed up by the thousands, their carcasses floating in the surf in the summer’s heat. By the week’s end, as the fish liquefied in a dumpster at a nearby wharf, petitions were circulating.

“End the most destructive fishery in the USA! The Menhaden Reduction Industry!” read one petition. Conservationists garnered thousands of signatures, and the outcry made it to the desk of Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin.

The dead menhaden were the victims of a net spill, says Chris Macaluso. In fact, it was one of three last summer. Macaluso is the director of the Center for Marine Fisheries at the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, which circulated one of the many petitions.

Macaluso says that in one of last summer’s net spills, spotter planes called in a school of menhaden but failed to see the school of federally protected red drum swimming below. When the fishers cinched the net shut and pulled it from the depths, it held enough red drum to give a game warden a coronary. They rushed to open the net to free them, flooding the bay with thousands of kilograms of floundering, dying fish.

If you’re a fish, Macaluso says, you don’t typically survive a run-in with a purse-seine net. “Even fish that [fishers] would intend to return back to the water, because they legally can’t bring them in the boat—those fish are dead, too. And that’s just the reality of how they fish.”

Net spills—whether from an intentional release or a tear in the net—dump mostly dead fish back into the sea. The whims of wind and tide carry the carcasses to shore.

The death of so many menhaden is alarming. Near the bottom of the food chain, this fatty little fish is key to maintaining the ecosystem—menhaden feed seabirds and big predatory fish. Net spills are a waste, but more frustrating to locals is the reason the menhaden were netted in such huge numbers in the first place: for reduction into fish meal and fish oil.

The petitions represent the latest skirmish in a decades-long battle between recreational anglers and Omega Protein, a Virginia fishing company purchased by a Canadian company in 2017. The anglers don’t fish for menhaden; they’re hooking one of the large predatory fish that feed on the little fish—striped bass.

To understand this big battle over a tiny fish, you must first understand striped bass. Atlantic striped bass, also known as rockfish, can live for more than 30 years in the wild and balloon up to five feet in length. They are a high-value catch for anglers from the St. Lawrence River to the Gulf of Mexico. The Chesapeake Bay is especially vital: The estuary is the nursery for 70 to 90 percent of the entire Atlantic stock.

According to the U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, the Atlantic striped bass is overfished. By the late 1970s, the species had nearly been fished into oblivion, but in the late 1980s, it began steadily rebounding—until it stopped. Recreational anglers and local commercial outfits are pointing fingers at Omega Protein, the primary harvester of menhaden pulled from U.S. waters.

For recreational anglers like Andrew Braker, a filmmaker and sport fisherman who grew up on the Chesapeake, the situation is symbolic of what he describes as a pervasive form of ecological myopia in applied fisheries management. To buoy the striped-bass population, government regulations restrict the striped-bass catch. “That’s great,” Braker says. “But what do those stripers eat? And how is that being managed?”

Against this backdrop, menhaden management has become a flash point in the broader fight over striped bass. Yet experts seem unsure what to do with the little fish.

The nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation, a watchdog organization, wants the purse-seine harvest of the bay’s menhaden to stop, or at least move farther out to sea. A pause would give regulators time to better understand how the catch is affecting the bay’s fish stocks and water quality.

Late last year, however, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the organization tasked with regulating the fishery, went the other way. The ASMFC argues that menhaden are not overfished, and it raised the menhaden fishery quota for the entire region by 20 percent to just over 233,000 tonnes, though the harvest cap in the bay remains at 51,000.

Historically, fisheries managers have considered each species in isolation. Despite the decision that raised the menhaden quota, the ASMFC is working to change this, and the organization based its increased quota on its efforts to develop a more holistic ecosystem-management approach that accounts for the projected populations of species further up the food chain. For instance, ecosystem modeling may target a menhaden fishing rate that carves out enough of the population to ideally sustain the minimum striped-bass population. But that’s an incredibly difficult calculation—especially when fish are frequently moving in and out of the estuary.

Ben Landry, Omega Protein’s director of public affairs, chalks the opposition to the increased menhaden quota up to distrust of science. “​​My belief is that [recreational anglers] opposed to menhaden fishing simply refuse to trust the best available science on the population,” Landry told me by email.

He said that many of the same conservationists who are now pushing back had previously championed the ASMFC’s model. “Now that the model indicates that the quota can be increased with little to no risk of overharvesting, it doesn’t fit their narrative,” he said.

In a written statement, the American Saltwater Guides Association disagrees. “Are we going against science? No, we are incredibly hesitant to approve an unprecedented increase in the [total allowable catch] for the most important forage fish in the ocean with some shaky data years and would have preferred to see a more gradual increase.”

Genevieve Nesslage, an expert in fisheries-stock assessments and population dynamics at the University of Maryland’s Chesapeake Biological Laboratory, emphasizes the challenge of calculating the interactions between menhaden and striped bass.

You can incorporate striped bass into the menhaden stock equation, Nesslage says, but the more species you tie in, the more precarious the juggling act becomes—especially against a backdrop of climate change, which is putting inordinate pressure on marine life. Nesslage’s research group is working on an alternative modeling approach, but she says neither her model nor the one used by ASMFC reflects a full-blown ecosystem.

Mike Waine, the Atlantic-fisheries policy director for the American Sportfishing Association, an industry trade group for recreational fishing, agrees that the ASMFC’s model is an improvement over the single-species management of yesteryear but adds that coastwide it is still looking at too large an area to capture the bay’s complicated dynamics.

Recreational fishing is big business, Waine says. “To us, the value of a little menhaden is to feed the predator species that we like to go out and fish for. That’s our value proposition for this ecologically important public resource. Obviously, some of the other stakeholders have a different one. And that’s really where the dynamics play out as everyone tries to advocate for their position.”

While those discussions unfold across the tables of inland boardrooms, petitions will continue to circulate, and mechanical winches will strain with the weight of nets full of menhaden that will make it to shore one way or another.