SOUTH PORTLAND – Scientists have called menhaden “the most important fish in the ocean,” and for good reason. The species, commonly called “bunker” by mid-Atlantic and New England anglers, grows to about 15 inches of oil- and protein-packed body length.

They feed by filtering nutrient-rich phytoplankton — tiny plants — from the water column. In doing so, menhaden help clean our coastal waters, and their diet makes them a nutrition-packed source of food and energy for many predator fish, birds such as eagles and ospreys and marine mammals, including dolphins.

The oils they provide are particularly important for animals generating eggs, recovering from the stress of spawning or fueling up for long annual migrations. Unfortunately, populations of these small fish have sunk nearly 80 percent during the last 25 years and are at an all-time low, threatening the entire marine food web.

This includes the striped bass fishery and many of the marine predators pursued by anglers enthusiastically and sustainably all along the Atlantic seaboard.

It’s hard to overstate the threat that a continued decline in the menhaden population poses. If managers continue to allow menhaden to be caught at levels that don’t leave enough in the water for predator species, the consequences could include sick fish due to malnutrition, less successful spawns for many fish species and ultimately fewer and smaller marine game fish, especially striped bass.

These impacts would cascade deeply and widely through our already weak coastal economies and could amount to thousands of jobs lost.

The good news is that for the first time in history, managers are actually considering reducing the menhaden harvest.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission will hold a public hearing from 6-9 p.m. Monday at The Yarmouth Log Cabin, 196 Main St.

I serve as president of Stripers Forever, a recreational fishing conservation group dedicated to ensuring that we never allow Atlantic striped bass populations to plummet again. Representatives of our membership and board will attend the Yarmouth hearing and other public hearings on the issue.

We will urge the commissioners to adopt new measures that are line with scientific research that suggests we should leave at least 40 percent of the menhaden population per year in the water to reproduce.

There are many quantifiable reasons related to jobs, the marine ecology and the economy that underscore why we need aggressive rebuilding strategies implemented now.

In 2005, out of an abundance of concern, we commissioned Rob Southwick, a renowned economist, to investigate the economic impact of recreational striped bass fishing.

Southwick reported that 3 million recreational anglers fish for striped bass annually and that we spend in the neighborhood of $6.6 billion in this passionate pursuit.

These expenditures support at least 63,000 jobs. These jobs are now being lost due in some part to a history of ineffective protections for menhaden, one of the most essential sources of forage for striped bass.

If you care about fishing, our economy and the health of our coastal ecosystems, I hope that you will join us Monday to show fisheries managers just how alarming this problem is to all of us.

It’s vital that we think about healthy coastal and marine ecosystems as the core economic engines of coastal communities. And it’s vital that we recognize how profoundly healthy menhaden stocks underpin our own health and prosperity.

We’ve had too many opportunities to learn the hard way from collapsed fisheries to ignore a problem of this scale.

We founded Stripers Forever to ensure that the striper fishery will never face a total collapse, as it did in the early 1990s, or allow coastal communities to suffer such economic hardship because of overfishing again.

At that time, managers demonstrated the courage and wisdom to close the striper fishery and rebuild the population.

The question at hand is whether the voting members of the Atlantic States Fisheries Commission will summon the courage to take the steps necessary to rebuild the menhaden population.

Let them hear from you on Monday and send letters to your commissioners and legislators.

- Special to the Press Herald