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A breakthrough in protecting a critical fish species


Photo: Artie Raslich
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ASMFC is shifting its approach to managing Atlantic menhaden, based on their role in the larger ecosystem. The use of ‘ecological reference points’ can help sustain a living system in the Hudson and along the East Coast.

Photo: Artie Raslich

This week brought a big victory for the fish.

In a unanimous vote, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission adopted a promising new approach in the management of Atlantic menhaden, a critical species that sustains whales, dolphins, striped bass, bluefish, osprey, eagles and so much more life along the East Coast.

In high abundance, they help protect other, vital species that are badly depleted. They prevent predators from feeding on other fishes like bay anchovy, river herring, and American shad that are in steep decline in the Hudson River Estuary.

Riverkeeper and many other groups united in support of steps to protect this “most important fish in the sea.” On Wednesday, after a new wave of appeals from Riverkeeper and others, the ASMFC decided that menhaden will be managed holistically based on their role in the larger ecosystem.

Under the new approach, catch limits will be set using “ecological reference points.” In essence, fishery managers will look first at how the species fits into the ecosystem before considering human uses for the fish. The strategy is supported by hundreds of scientists. It will not solve all the ecological problems in the ocean, but it’s a giant step in the right direction.

A sustained, united push for this approach came from Riverkeeper and allied groups like the Pew Charitable Trusts. More than 600 people signed a petition from Riverkeeper last month, delivered to ASMFC just before the vote.

People have made clear that these fish are no longer commodities to be mined from the ocean en masse without regard for them or their role in the ecosystem.

Atlantic menhaden, also known as bunker, turn sunlight into biomass that sustains striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, fluke, tuna, cod, sharks, porpoises and whales. (See the spectacular footage below, showing dolphins corralling menhaden, right off the beach in the Hamptons.) They support coastal and marine birds, including brown pelicans, bald eagles, ospreys, gannets, loons, terns and gulls, which are facing multiple threats along our coast.

And like oysters, they also help filter algae and keep our waters clean.

We hope this management approach will be expanded to protect other forage fish, which, as noted by Pew, are often overlooked because they aren’t marketed directly to consumers.

As we saw earlier this summer, when large numbers of dead menhaden were seen along the shorelines, everything is connected. The Hudson needs these fish. And these fish need the Hudson.

Learn more

Saving Hudson River Fish

Protecting menhaden

Report: The Hudson River’s Species are in Decline

Tell Gov. Hochul to block invasive species at the Erie and Champlain canals
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