"It's a huge victory," says Tony Friedrich, executive director of Coastal Conservation Association Maryland. "It means to never give up, because sometimes science wins."
Researchers say a forage fish, such as menhaden, should be maintained at numbers roughly equal to 50 percent of its unfished stock. The current menhaden population is closer to nine percent, although the measure adopted by the ASMFC could help put the fish on course to sustainability as soon as 2013.
The policy board on Tuesday voted overwhelmingly to collect public comment on a parcel of options to rebuild menhaden stocks. Friedrich is confident the public will support protecting menhaden, which he says has never been adequately managed.
"Menhaden is the only fish in the state of Virginia that's managed by the legislature," Friedrich says. "It's managed by politicians."
Virginia's representative on the ASMFC was the only commission member to oppose the action inviting public comment.
Menhaden, a small, oily fish, is a favorite food of striped bass, bluefish, and other Chesapeake Bay predators. According to Friedrich, a bass would have to eat several thousand anchovies to derive the same nutritional value it gets from one menhaden. But as menhaden stocks have been depleted by commercial outfits which sell the fish for use in cosmetics and animal feed, the striped bass population has plunged.
"The whole ecosystem got out of whack," Friedrich says.
In addition to serving as food for other fish, menhaden also filters the nitrogen-rich run-off from Maryland chicken farms that's choking underwater dwellers. Without menhaden, sometimes called "the most important fish in the sea," there's far less oxygen available for shellfish who can't swim to healthier waters.
"I've seen blue crabs holding on to the top of crab pot buoys because they can't breathe," Friedrich says. "I've seen 50 crabs run up on the beach and commit suicide."
Menhaden populations have been further stressed by bait fishermen. Since there's now a moratorium on catching Atlantic herring, lobstermen in Massachusetts and Maine need a replacement fish.
Still, Friedrich says, the bait fishermen's tactics aren't as destructive as those of the major commercial operations, which use purse seines to catch massive amounts of menhaden.
Friedrich believes those practices will be checked by public outcry.
"It's like trying to kill a rhinoceros with a pocketknife," Friedrich says of the ongoing fight to protect fish stocks. "You've got to keep slashing."