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Fisheries scientists are conducting a study on Atlantic menhaden that will help identify the balance between harvesting and preserving the species.

Atlantic menhaden, described as “small, oily fish” that migrate along the East Coast, are the “favorite menu item of prized rockfish,” and have a high commercial value, according to a statement the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science.

Currently, the menhaden population is at its lowest point in more than 50 years due to harvesting and predation, the statement says.

But fisheries scientists from UMCES are investigating the balance between fishing for Atlantic menhaden and the value the fish has in the ecosystem, thanks to a grant from the Lenfest Ocean Program.

The Lenfest Ocean Program “funds scientific research on policy-relevant topics concerning the world’s oceans and communicates the results of the supported research to decision makers and other interested audiences,” according to its website.

According to UMCES, the study’s goal is to help develop fishing management guidelines to ensure the menhaden survives.

“Management of menhaden has become very controversial because of different views of how we allocate menhaden between commercial and bait fisheries and those left in the ocean to serve as prey for striped bass and other predators,” Tom Miller, the study’s lead researcher and director of the UMCES Chesapeake Biological Laboratory in Solomons, said in the statement. “We’re trying to estimate from a scientific viewpoint how much we need to leave for the predators to fulfill other important roles in the ecosystem.”

Atlantic menhaden are “subject to all kinds of pressures,” said team member Edward Houde, a professor with UMCES who specializes in forage fish ecology and ecosystem-based fisheries management.

The fish is a crucial food source for large fish and marine mammals and sea birds, according to the statement. In addition, menhaden are harvested for bait in crab and lobster fisheries, and more than 300 million pounds are caught every year and processed into meal and oil for livestock food, and Omega-3 fish oil supplements.

The two-year study, which began Dec. 1, is intended to help fishery managers at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and the state fishery management agencies develop ecosystem-based reference points for the menhaden.

Houde explained that the reference points are meant to lower the fishing mortality rate while increasing the menhaden population.

“The previous reference points are not as precautionary as they should be,” he said, stressing the need for a balance for sustaining the fisheries and the ecosystem simultaneously.

aharrison@somdnews.com