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Saving This Small Fish Can Help Save the Ocean

I’ve always loved fresh fish. As a chef, there’s nothing like cooking a striped bass or bluefish straight from the Chesapeake — watching as the skin darkens, caramelizes, and releases just a hint of the unmistakably sweet, yet salty, fragrance of the Bay. But as a sustainability advocate, I’ve also grown concerned about the health of a key food source for these and many other species along the Eastern seaboard — a small fish known as menhaden.

This week the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) will meet to set new policies on future catches for menhaden. And its decision could impact people, seafood lovers, and anglers alike, from Maine to the Carolinas.


Meet the Menhaden

Courtesy of U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

The Chesapeake has long been known as a rich oasis of marine life, with numerous types of crabs, fish, and birds that call it home. Menhaden—also known as “bunker” or “pogies” — is perhaps one of the most ecologically important fish in the Bay.

Menhaden serve as a crucial building block in the foundation of the Chesapeake’s food chain. In fact, they are a critical source of sustenance for some of the most iconic and culinarily-heralded seafood species on the Atlantic seaboard.

But they are also coveted by several industries for their omega-3-rich oils. Although menhaden have never really been a significant source of food for people, they are caught each year by the hundreds of millions and processed into livestock feed, health care products, and dietary supplements. This insatiable demand for fish oil has created tremendous commercial pressure to remove more menhaden from the water than nature can effectively replace.


Too Much of a Good Thing…

Taking too many menhaden out of the ecosystem is like knocking over the first domino. Other species suffer when they don’t have robust populations of menhaden to eat. And when the numbers of the prized sports fish dwindle, the significant amount of dollars anglers annually bring to communities along the Bay declines in turn.

It’s critical that the public understands that a resilient, robust, and plentiful menhaden stock is crucial for the economic health and longevity of commercial and recreational fisheries.

The problem with unsustainable fishing is that its impacts may not be readily apparent to many in their everyday lives.

Fishermen draw up menhadens by the thousand. Photo courtesy NOAA

This week, the ASMFC is convening in Boston to set new policies on future catches for menhaden. In the last 55 years, according to ASMFC statistics, the total menhaden harvest has exceeded the sustainable fishing target in every year but one. Yet, policymakers have never taken any corrective management actions. We can’t afford to let this travesty continue.

The problem with unsustainable fishing is that its impacts may not be readily apparent to many in their everyday lives. But when we mismanage our marine resources it hurts everyone. And protecting menhaden—although its fate might seem of small significance in light of the many other challenges facing our society today—would have tremendous long-term benefits for not only for the Bay’s ecosystem, but its economy as well.


An Historic Opportunity

The ASMFC now has an historic opportunity to restore the damage caused by decades of mismanagement of this invaluable fish population. Enacting stronger caps on the annual commercial catch of menhaden is a clear and simple recipe for success in managing our marine resources more sustainably—an approach that will benefit anglers, chefs, and many others on the East Coast who depend on a healthy ocean.


Watch Barton Seaver’s “Cook-Wise” video about menhaden, and pick up a delicious and sustainable menhaden-free dinner recipe.


Barton Seaver is a chef and National Geographic Fellow who has dedicated his career to restoring the relationship we have with our ocean. It is his belief that the choices we are making for dinner are directly impacting the ocean and its fragile ecosystems. Follow Barton Seaver on Twitter.

Related News Watch blog post by Lee Crockett — Overfishing 101: A Small Fish With Big Problems


  1. Jane
    January 27, 2012, 4:24 am

    The question of overfishing in the Chesapeake Bay has been around for quite some time, I have lived here most of my life, so I’m happy to say that things are slowly moving. The cause with the menhaden was pressing for a long time now. Just to give you an idea, about 50 years ago there were more than 90 billion according to estimates, now it’s less than 18 billion which is a drastic change. Virginia is the only state that does permit industrial fishing, which I don’t approve since it’s apparently causing a lot of trouble to the whole ecosystem over here. The problem of throwing the underwater ecosystems off balance was well described also in the Documentary Mission Blue from last year.
    You were writing about some restrictions coming up. Well, the ASMF did meet up but the result was only a small restriction to the annual harvest of about 5%, and this can be implemented as late as May 2013. It certainly is something, but the general public should make more pressure about this issue.

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  4. linda
    November 13, 2011, 1:22 pm

    please protect the fish.otherwise in 40 years there wont be any and nobodys grandchildren will know the joy of fishing, or eat fish.the oceans are important to humans!