RICHMOND, Va. (AP) — Fisheries regulators voted Wednesday to reduce by more than one-third the harvest of menhaden, a small fish that plays a big ecological role in the health of the Chesapeake Bay and the fish that swim in its waters.

Meeting in Boston, the menhaden board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to cut the annual harvest by 37 percent, according to calculations by the Pew Environmental Group. The new harvest limit, which is subject to a vote by the full commission in one year, would be effective in 2013.

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Approximately 460 million pounds of Atlantic menhaden were caught in 2010, primarily by trawlers that scoop up the fish in nets in the bay and along portions of the coast. Lobstermen in Maine and Massachusetts and bay crabbers also use the oily fish to bait their traps.

Environmentalists, scientists and sports fishermen have lobbied for years for the more stringent catch limits. The forage species is eaten by prized game fish such as striped bass, or rock fish, and filters the Chesapeake Bay, improving its water quality.

“They did the right thing today,” said Peter Baker of the Pew Group. “I think they heard the public loud and clear.”

The commission held 13 public hearings on menhaden and received nearly 92,000 comments, the vast majority seeking to limit the harvest. The reduced catch is intended to allow menhaden stocks to rebound.

The lower catch limit could be felt the hardest in Reedville, Va., home to a menhaden fleet that has made the tiny bay town the No. 2 fishing port by weight in the U.S. More than 400 million pounds of the menhaden were hauled in last year by Omega Protein Inc. trawlers.

Omega processes the catch into Omega-3 capsules popular among Americans for the fish oil’s vaunted health benefits. It is also used in an array of food and commercial products, from feed for swine, poultry and cattle and to meal for fish farms.

Omega spokesman Ben Landry said a new stock assessment was due within the next year. “There’ll be a lot of new data presented to the board over the next year and hopefully the population will improve,” he said.

Omega, a Houston company that also operates a menhaden fleet in the Gulf of Mexico, employs about 300 people at its Reedville plant during the May-to-December season. The company has said limits could trigger job reductions.

“I think we’re going to have to take a real close look at our current operations to see how it’s going to be affected,” Landry
said, stopping short of saying there would be job cuts.

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Menhaden, pudgy fish that typically are less than 1-foot in length, have no value as a food fish. But the fish so coveted by Americans as a dietary supplement is also a primary source of nourishment for sea life and birds.

“That same Omega-3 fatty acid is really important for fish that eat menhaden and the other animals that eat menhaden,” said Baker, director of Pew’s northeast fisheries. “It’s the most nutritious food that they can eat.”

Scientists have linked lower weights in stripers to declines in menhaden.

The Chesapeake Bay Foundation called the vote a victory for the coastal ecosystem and the fish that feast on menhaden.

“This is great news for jobs, for our economy and for a society that values wildlife,” said Will Baker, president of the

Maryland Gov. Martin O’Malley praised fisheries regulators for their actions.

“The new, more conservative fishing threshold and target are significant steps in ensuring a sustainable future for menhaden, an essential food source for striped bass, bluefish, dolphins, osprey and bald eagles and other fish and wildlife species,” he said in a statement.

Vast schools of menhaden used to range from Maine to Florida, supporting a thriving fishery along the coast. Omega is the last so-called “reduction” fishery along the Atlantic.

“The abundance of menhaden and the number of menhaden in the water, over the last 30 years, has been reduced by more than 80 percent,” Baker said. He called the vote a “watershed moment.”

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