An interstate panel that regulates fishing from Maine to Florida is weighing a range of actions that could reduce the commercial harvest of menhaden by as much as 45 percent all along the coast, including in Maryland. (Barbara Haddock Taylor / The Baltimore Sun / October 28, 2011)

A big fight is brewing over a little fish — a fish that no one wants to eat but that many regard as the most important in the sea.

Catch restrictions loom on menhaden, which is too unsavory to grace a dinner plate but much sought by commercial fishermen. They catch them in staggering numbers to be ground into animal feed, to extract their heart-healthy oils for humans and to be used as bait to catch other fish, including Maryland's iconic blue crabs.

Menhaden also play a vital role in the Chesapeake Bay's ecosystem, feeding on plankton and serving themselves as food for many of the fish, birds and animals that people do eat or care about.

"They're a keystone species," says biologist Paul Spitzer of Trappe. Besides feeding other fish, menhaden are a staple for seabirds such as ospreys, gannets and common loons. When the fish are scarce, he says, it affects the health and abundance of other creatures as well.

Now, driven by a warning from scientists that menhaden levels are perilously low, an interstate panel that regulates fishing from Maine to Florida is weighing a range of actions that could reduce the commercial harvest of the fish by as much as 45 percent all along the coast, including in Maryland.

The proposal, to be taken up Nov. 9 at a meeting in Boston of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, is being hailed by recreational anglers and conservationists alike, who've long voiced concerns about menhaden levels, and say other animals that depend on them for food, such as highly prized striped bass, are suffering from malnourishment.

"We fished the stock down many decades ago, and have maintained a heavy enough fishing pressure that we've held it at a fairly low level," said William Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and one of three Maryland members on the fisheries commission. It's time to leave more menhaden in the water and give them a chance to increase, he said.

But the proposal before the commission has drawn pushback from commercial fishermen in Maryland and elsewhere, who contend the science shows there's no cause for alarm and any cutback will hurt an already diminished livelihood.

"This is the last thing we've got is menhaden," says Larry "Boo" Powley of Hoopers Island, one of about 100 fishermen in Maryland who catch the fish in a pound net, a fencelike arrangement of anchored nets that lure them into a trap.

A third-generation netter, Powley, 58, and his crew of four supply the bulk of their catch to crabbers on the island for bait. If rules cut his haul back by a fifth or more, as the panel is considering, Powley warns he'll leave his boat at the dock because he won't be able to make a go of it anymore.

Nowhere is opposition more intense than in Virginia, home to a fleet that hauls in 80 percent of all the menhaden caught along the Atlantic Coast. Bait fishermen such as Powley account for the other 20 percent.

Reedville, the picturesque town on Virginia's Northern Neck where Omega Protein Inc. processes its fleet's harvest, is the second busiest fishing port in the United States (after Dutch Harbor, Alaska) by the weight of the harvest landed there.

Last year, Omega hauled in 183,000 metric tons of menhaden, according to fisheries commission data, an increase of 27 percent from the year before. About 40 percent came from the Virginia waters of the bay — the so-called "reduction" fishing fleet isn't permitted to work in Maryland.

"I think menhaden are already getting a high level of protection," Ron Lukens, Omega's chief fisheries biologist, said at a meeting last week in Anne Arundel County of a panel attempting to advise the commission on its decision.

With representatives from Omega, Virginia and New Jersey insisting no change is needed, the group reached no consensus.

A nationwide group of 75 scientists, however, says menhaden need greater protection, in part so they can fulfill their role as water filters and food source for other fish and animals.

Scientists reviewing the fisheries commission's latest assessment of the menhaden stock noted that the population has fallen over the last 25 years, to the point that they're now only 8 percent of their historic level. Overfishing occurred in 32 of the last 54 years, the study concluded, including 2008, the most recent year studied.

Omega's spokesman, Ben Landry, says those numbers are deceptive. The menhaden catch exceeded the commission's harvest threshold only once in the last 10 years, he points out, and then only slightly. The population is not overfished, he said, and with an estimated 18 trillion eggs produced in 2008, there's no danger of collapse.

Omega employs 300 people on its nine-vessel fishing fleet and in its processing factory at Reedville, Landry says, and has invested $28 million to $30 million upgrading its plant in the past eight years.

Virginia politicians have moved to shield the company with a law removing oversight of menhaden from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, an appointed body which oversees all other fisheries.