Tiny Fish, Mighty Purpose

How Baitfish Drive Sportfishing

Learn More Donate Photo courtesy Gaelin Rosenwaks

If you want great sportfishing,
you need healthy forage fish

Like other small but critically important forage fish, menhaden and herring play a central role in marine food webs. These tiny, oily baitfish are an essential food source for larger fish species, including some of the most economically important sportfish: striped bass, redfish, bluefin tuna, bluefish, speckled trout, weakfish, tarpon, summer flounder, and sharks. Whales, dolphins, seabirds, and other marine species also consume these forage fish in large quantities.

But not all forage fish are managed with consideration for their vital role in coastal ecosystems.

In fact, commercial harvest of Atlantic and Gulf menhaden has increased to meet the demand of what’s called a “reduction fishery,” which reduces billions of menhaden into livestock feed, fish oil, fish meal, fertilizers, cosmetics, and other products. More menhaden are commercially harvested each year than any other fish in the lower 48 states—more than a billion pounds are caught per year on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. 

Atlantic herring are also netted by the millions, mostly to be sold as lobster trap bait rather than being left as food for larger fish and wildlife, or used as bait for low-impact recreational fishing. The mass removal of these species puts predators at risk and undermines the health of marine ecosystems.

This is why sportsmen and sportswomen are calling for regional fisheries managers to change their approach to managing forage fish like menhaden and herring.

Serving A Larger Purpose To The Ecosystem

If nothing changes, excessive removal of these important forage fish can damage our coastal ecosystems and harm America’s outdoor recreation economy. Here’s how leaving more forage fish in the water for predators would benefit anglers and communities that rely on recreational fishing.

Where We Work

The TRCP has partnered with other leading voices in the recreational fishing sector—including the American Sportfishing Association, Coastal Conservation Association, National Marine Manufacturers Association, Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association, Bonefish & Tarpon Trust, and others—to encourage fisheries managers to leave more forage fish in the water for gamefish and protect sensitive ecosystems from industrial fishing wherever this practice is still taking place. Click on an area of focus to see our most recent efforts and get involved.

  • Atlantic Coast

    The TRCP has been working to improve management of Atlantic menhaden since 2017, and our community has already secured some important wins. More recently, we have begun similar efforts in New England, focusing on better management of Atlantic herring.

    After years of advocacy from anglers and recreational fishing business leaders, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted unanimously in August 2020 to implement “ecological reference points” in menhaden management and account for the small baitfish’s impact on fish all the way up the food chain, leaving enough menhaden in the water to support the coastwide striped bass population. This is key for our recreational fishing opportunities, because studies show that menhaden reduction fishing contributes to a nearly 30-percent decline in striped bass numbers.

    Now, our menhaden efforts include supporting continued improvements to the management model to benefit striped bass populations and pushing for additional conservation measures for menhaden and other forage fish species. On the Atlantic herring front, we are working to reinstitute a buffer zone along the New England coast to keep herring midwater trawlers out of the nearshore area. This will enhance the recovery of the currently depleted Atlantic herring stock and leave more herring in the water for sportfish populations.


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