Last summer, there was a surge of menhaden northward into Maine’s midcoast waters. Many years had passed since a surge of “pogies” visited the shores of Muscongus Bay, and their arrival was quickly noticed. All of a sudden osprey began carrying menhaden to their chicks, anglers witnessed feasting striped bass and local lobstermen began catching their own bait.

These events have become more commonplace since the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted in 2012 to end overfishing of Atlantic menhaden and set coastwide catch limits for the first time. But in recent years, catch limits have increased, a pattern that continued Monday, when the commission voted for the status quo rather than recognizing the keystone importance of Atlantic menhaden.

The commission claims to want ecologically based fisheries science to determine how much of the menhaden stock can be harvested while leaving enough in the sea for wildlife, but such studies will be completed no sooner than 2019. In the interim, the commission considered how to responsibly manage the menhaden fishery and asked all concerned for their input.

Unfortunately, despite vast consensus to manage the fishery in a sustainable way by leaving more fish in the sea, the commissioners decided to keep the catch limits for Atlantic menhaden the same. They rejected an interim proposal, supported by 126,000 public comments, to set ecosystem-based management guidelines that would have ensured an abundance of food for the many species known to feed on menhaden.

Why are menhaden so important to the marine ecosystem?

Menhaden are an oily fish important to marine mammals, game fish such as striped bass and bluefish, and coastal birds including osprey, bald eagle, royal tern, brown pelican, black-crowned night heron, northern gannet, black skimmer, least tern and common loon. That’s why environmentalists, scientists, recreational anglers, restaurant owners, ecotourism companies and more support leaving more menhaden in the ocean.

Robust menhaden stocks support healthy ecosystems, which in turn help sustain Maine’s tourism economy. By feeding much of the marine food web, these high-energy fish are also fueling ecotourism, seafood and recreational industries, which are important economic drivers. In Maine alone, there are 838,000 resident and nonresident wildlife watchers that contribute over $798 million in ecotourism per year. Menhaden are also a crucial prey for game fish and therefore benefit Maine’s seafood industry, which provides 39,000 jobs and spins off $2.4 billion in annual sales. In Maine, 84,000 resident and nonresident recreational anglers spend $52 million annually, supporting almost 660 Maine jobs.

Atlantic menhaden are also filter feeders – an attribute that mitigates the effects of warming coastal waters. Menhaden remove algae and detritus that can choke coastal waters, creating toxic dead zones as sunlight is blocked from beneficial rooted aquatic plants such as eelgrass. Each fish can filter up to 7 gallons of water per minute! No other fish in the Gulf of Maine can filter ocean water as fast or effectively. But it takes vast schools of these toothless “moss bunkers” to have this effect. Long live these large-mouthed ocean grazers swimming with mouth open, filtering plankton, algae and detritus, converting it to oil-packed protein for the larger finned, feathered and furred marine life.

Since people don’t eat menhaden, this is not a choice of food for people or wildlife. Claiming that they were waiting for science to provide clarity about how much to leave in the sea, most of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission sided with just one company, Omega Protein, which claims 75 percent of the commercial harvest of Atlantic menhaden to produce fertilizer, dietary supplements and cosmetics.

Monday’s vote ignored the Atlantic menhaden’s role as “the most important fish in the sea.” By favoring business as usual, one large corporation benefited and the interests of thousands were ignored. The commission should have taken into account the groups that use menhaden, including birds, marine mammals and recreational and commercial anglers.

Despite the commission’s decision to keep catch limits the same, they are vocal about wanting to create an ecologically based fishery in the future, once the science supports this change. The commission projected that the management study would be completed by 2019, and I am hopeful the commission will do the right thing in 2019 to safeguard this important species and all the life along our coast that depends on it for food and a healthy ecosystem.