For such a small fish, the menhaden has been making big news recently.
In October the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) voted to reduce the coast-wide menhaden quota by 10%, in line with its ecosystem-based approach to fish management adopted two months earlier.
The move, which was wholeheartedly supported by the American Sportfishing Association (ASA), considers the needs of predatory sportfish, the striped bass population in particular, for which the menhaden is a key food source.
But this humble baitfish is now at the centre of a growing conflict in Louisiana where state leaders have rejected a plan to restrict large-scale menhaden fishing near the coastline.
The state’s Wildlife and Fisheries Commission last week voted five to one against a proposal backed by recreational fishing and conservation groups that would have established an exclusion zone for menhaden fishing, protecting them from long nets and large vessels operated by commercial catchers.
The zone would have extended one mile out along the Louisiana shoreline, mirroring restrictions imposed in neighbouring states like Mississippi and Alabama.
Commissioner Chad Courville, the proposal’s sponsor, said Louisiana has the Gulf’s most lax menhaden regulations. Texas has set catch limits and Mississippi and Alabama prohibit purse seine and other large nets across stretches of their coastlines. In Florida, all large-scale net fishing is banned in state waters.
The problem is that catching this tiny fish is big business. Menhaden are targeted commercially for products like fish oil supplements, petfoods and fertilisers.
However, they are also an important link in the natural food chain and catches have been increasingly scrutinised as striped bass populations struggle to rebuild.
Studies show that menhaden make up between 23% and 66% of striped bass diets and research suggests that commercial fishing of menhaden could be responsible for as much as a 30% decline in striped bass.
A 2016 report determined that the striped bass fishery generated $7.8 billion towards America’s gross domestic product.
There is also concern that other fish prized by anglers are snagged in menhaden nets fished close to the shore.
“The important first step by the ASMFC to put science-backed limits on menhaden harvest will support the entire ecosystem of prized sportfish that our industry’s anglers and boaters count on,” said Adam Fortier-Brown, Government Relations Manager for the Marine Retailers Association of the Americas.
After voting down the proposal in Louisiana, the commission said it would explore other ways of reducing conflict between anglers and the menhaden fishing industry.