The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted on Dec. 14 for a historic reduction in the harvest of menhaden, an oily little baitfish that fishermen and biologists often call the "most important fish in the sea."

On the final day of a meeting in Baltimore, ASFMC voted to adopt Amendment 2 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for menhaden, which was heralded by conservationists as the first step toward managing menhaden with respect to its importance to the ecosystem.

The vote established a total allowable catch of 170,800 metric tons beginning in 2013. That total is a 20-percent reduction from the average landings from 2009 through 2011 and approximately a 25-percent reduction from 2011 landings. A reduction of 20 percent in the Chesapeake Bay reduction fishery harvest cap is also included. 

Landings will be allocated on a state by state basis, and states will be required to close their fisheries when their portion of the harvest has been reached, with overages to be paid back the next year. Also, the allocation is broken down 85-15 between the reduction fishery and the bait fishery. 

Dr Louis Daniel, director of the N.C. Division of Marine Fisheries and chairman of the ASFMC's menhaden board, said North Carolina's allocation will be small since the state hasn't had a reduction fishery since 2005. The N.C. Marine Fisheries Commission also voted last spring to prohibit the use of purse seines in state waters – the reduction fishery's primary method of catching menhaden. 

Daniel said North Carolina's share of the allocation will be approximately 1.8 million pounds, which is slightly less than the amount of menhaden annually used as crab bait.  

"The (ASFMC) has made a conscious decision to address the ecosystem services provided by menhaden," Daniel said. "Given the stock is experiencing overfishing and is most-likely overfished based on the newly adopted reference points, it was incumbent upon the (ASFMC) to reduce landings in order to ensure the long-term sustainability of the resource and the fisheries that depend on it." 

Richen Brame, Atlantic States Fisheries Director for the Coastal Conservation Association, called the vote "a historical victory for recreational anglers." 

"CCA has been fighting this fight for 20 years," he said. "For the first time ever, the Atlantic menhaden fishery is finally being managed. The key in today's action is that the ASFMC made a decision to manage menhaden as part of an ecosystem rather than solely as a food fish. The philosophy is a major step forward for improving the marine ecosystem for anglers from Maine to Florida." 

The latest stock assessment showed the menhaden stock was undergoing overfishing and abundance estimates were at the lowest level ever recorded. Current science indicates that the menhaden spawning stock biomass is at about nine percent of a stock that is not subjected to any fishing pressure. The 20-percent reduction in harvest is an interim measure that will be in place until the results of the next benchmark stock assessment are known in 2014.