A commission representing 15 Eastern states voted yesterday to impose a limit on the fishing of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay to prevent excessive harvesting and ecological harm.
Menhaden, an oily fish about the size of a cigar, is a primary food for striped bass and other larger fish and one of the few remaining filter feeders that help clean the bay's waters.
The 12-2 vote by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission means that the annual catch will be limited to about 105,000 metric tons of menhaden annually for five years beginning in 2006.
That represents a continuation of the average catch of the past five years, said Nancy Wallace, fisheries management plan coordinator for the commission.
Omega Protein Inc. is the only significant fisher of menhaden in the Chesapeake. A spokesman for Houston-based Omega, which uses the fish to create Omega-3 fish oil capsules, did not return phone calls seeking comment yesterday.
Company officials have defended their industrial-scale netting as a practice that they have been performing for decades without evidence of harm.
Bill Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, applauded Howard King, director of fisheries at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, for introducing the motion to create a five-year limit.
"Maryland has shown real leadership in menhaden conservation with this action," Goldsboro said. "And the vote, 12-2, underscores the feeling in Maryland that this is of critical importance to citizens up and down the coast."
Voting against the limit were representatives of Virginia and North Carolina, where menhaden fishing operations are based. Maryland, Delaware, Connecticut, Massachusetts and other Eastern states voted in favor of the limit, and Florida abstained, as did representatives of two federal agencies.
John Hocevar, an ocean specialist with the environmental group Greenpeace, said his organization wanted stronger action to create a moratorium on fishing for menhaden.
"I don't think this does enough to protect the Chesapeake Bay or menhaden populations up and down the coast," he said.
Sports fishermen were among those pushing for the limits, arguing that larger fish were at risk of losing a crucial food source because the menhaden population had dropped from about 15 billion in the 1980s to about 3 billion.
The commission took the vote during a meeting in Alexandria, Va. Offering an alternative to the limit, representatives of Omega had proposed a voluntary restriction of 131,000 metric tons, but that idea was voted down, 10-6.
The Associated Press contributed to this article.