BOSTON — — The interstate panel that oversees fishing along the Eastern Seaboard voted overwhelmingly Wednesday to cut the menhaden catch by up to 37 percent next year in an effort to protect the species and, by extension, striped bass.
The 14-3 vote by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission was hailed by environmentalists and criticized by commercial fishermen who make their living catching menhaden for processing into animal feed and dietary supplements and for bait.
"This is historic," said Ken Hinman of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. "This will leave more fish in the water to reproduce and rebuild the stock."
Menhaden, called "the most important fish in the sea" by conservationists because of its role as a food source for other fish, such as striped bass, and birds, has been in steady decline, with a population that stands at 8 percent of historic levels. But the commercial fishing industry has fought efforts to impose limits, which led to the showdown at the commission's annual meeting.
The atmosphere outside the hotel ballroom resembled a political convention rather than the normally low-key regulatory meeting. Recreational anglers bused in for the occasion handed out fliers and buttonholed commissioners, who had to walk by a 9-foot cardboard fish decorated in slogans. Governors and congressmen lobbied behind the scenes and in the open.
In a letter to the commission, Omega Protein said its nine-boat fishing fleet and processing plant in Reedville, Va., could accept a 23 percent reduction in the harvest. Virginia commissioners tried to steer the vote in that direction, but mustered little support.
Jamie Geiger of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service urged fellow commissioners to "connect the dots" between a healthy menhaden population and the well-being of other species.
Maryland, which does not allow Omega's vessels in its part of the Chesapeake Bay, played a key role, pushing a target that provided a significant buffer against overfishing. Gov. Martin O'Malley, who called six governors in the days leading up to the vote, commended the decision Wednesday.
The issue drew more than 91,000 comments — the most in commission history — and attracted more than 600 people to 13 public hearings up and down the coast, the majority in favor of enacting protections.
Pushing back, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell sent letters to five Republican governors, and congressmen from Virginia and Massachusetts sent letters to the commission urging members to adopt the smallest reduction.
After the vote was tallied, the ballroom erupted in applause.
"It was the wisdom of a lot of people, the groundswell of public support and high-quality, sincere input that turned the tide," said William Goldsborough, senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and a commission member.
Virginia commissioners and Omega Protein representatives were grim after the vote, noting that a cutback could mean a loss of some of the more than 300 jobs tied to the fleet and processing plant. Omega stock dropped 21 percent during the day.
"Obviously, we're not happy. It's easy to cast a vote when your economy and your citizens are not impacted," said Steve Bowman, head of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.
"It's akin to swatting a gnat with a sledgehammer," said Ron Lukens, senior fisheries biologist for Omega. "It's absolutely disappointing."
But commissioners were swayed by the advice of their scientists. Overfishing has occurred in 32 of the past 54 years, an analysis conducted for the commission found, including in 2008, the most recent year studied. The menhaden harvest has exceeded the target every year since 1960.
Omega argued that those numbers are just part of the picture. Company spokesman Ben Landry said overfishing in 2008 was just 4 percent over the threshold and that commission scientists have reported that the population is not overfished.
The next step is for the commissioners to work out a management plan that ensures the benchmarks are met. That means figuring out how to allocate menhaden among the states and between Omega and the bait boats and deciding what kind of fishing gear is appropriate.
"The framework is the easy part," said Lynn Fegley, a Maryland fisheries biologist and commissioner. "We are getting ready to put in management levers — and the will to use them — where there hadn't been any. The people deserve that. Menhaden deserve that."