RD528 - Atlantic Menhaden Research Planning – October 1, 2023

Executive Summary:

Forage fishes play a critical role in marine food webs. These small and medium-sized species are a key food source for many larger fishes, marine mammals, and seabirds, thereby transferring energy from plankton to larger consumers. Historically, fisheries management decisions were aimed at maximizing yields while maintaining biological sustainability, and this philosophy was often applied without considering the ecology and economics of managed resources. Over the past two decades, however, this management philosophy has evolved to become conceptually more holistic, and in some cases, tactically rooted in ecosystem principles. In the mid-Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay region, the Atlantic menhaden is an ecologically important forage fish that has supported the largest fishery by volume on the Atlantic coast for over a century. Fueled by advancements in ecosystem-based fisheries science and management, the stock status of Atlantic menhaden and the potential ecosystem effects of high-volume fishery removals have been more critically evaluated in recent years, particularly in Chesapeake Bay. Although Atlantic menhaden science has been growing and evolving for decades, the available information focused specifically on fish that seasonally inhabit the bay is limited and many unresolved questions remain. For several years, environmentalists, conservation groups, and recreational anglers have expressed concern to elected officials, policy makers, and fisheries scientists about the health of Chesapeake Bay, and in particular, the impacts of Atlantic menhaden commercial fishing on the bay ecosystem. In response to these concerns, the Virginia General Assembly passed legislation during the 2023 session that directs the Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) to develop a plan for studying Atlantic menhaden in the waters of the Commonwealth. To achieve the legislative objectives, VIMS led a 1.5-day workshop that brought together a diverse group of stakeholders with varied perspectives on issues related to Atlantic menhaden. These stakeholders were asked to work collaboratively toward identifying and prioritizing research topics that address uncertainties and knowledge gaps pertaining to the ecology, fishery impacts, and economic importance of Atlantic menhaden. The workshop was highly successful and consensus among participants supported nine extremely relevant research recommendations. This report summarizes the rationale, methodology, appropriate research agencies, collaborative stakeholders, timelines, and costs associated with these research recommendations. Workshop participants also unanimously agreed that addressing these research topics would greatly enhance the information available to fishery managers charged with formulating robust harvest policies that acknowledge the ecological role of Atlantic menhaden in the Commonwealth and beyond.