Environmentalists and commercial fishing groups on the East Coast are divided over a decision to increase the amount fishermen can catch of an ecologically vital small fish.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission approved changes to menhaden fishing rules on Tuesday, including increasing the East Coast's fishing quota by 8 percent, or some 35 million pounds (15.88 million kilograms) of fish.
The decision followed a string of public hearings and weeks of debate about how to manage a fish that is important for such industries as fish oil for human supplements and meal for aquaculture, but is also a vital food source for whales, dolphins and large fish.
The commission had been considering several new ways of managing menhaden, some of which included potentially reducing the quota — an idea environmental activist groups supported.
The pro-industry Menhaden Fisheries Coalition said the commission's decision to offer a modest quota increase followed "best available science." The increase in quota won't bring the fishery close to the point of overfishing, the commission said.
But environmental groups, including Pew Charitable Trusts, said the move fails to account for menhaden's key role in the food chain.
"Wildlife on the East Coast will suffer for these choices, as will people who enjoy fishing for striped bass or watching whales," said Peter Baker, Northeast director of U.S. ocean conservation for the Pew Charitable Trusts.
Menhaden are one of the most-caught fish in the U.S., dwarfing popular food fish, such as tuna and flounder, in terms of sheer volume of catch. They're also a popular bait fish, and are used in lucrative fisheries such as lobster harvesting.
Fishermen caught more than 1.7 billion pounds (0.77 billion kilograms) of menhaden in 2016. On the East Coast, the industry is based largely in Virginia, but it is caught from Maine to Florida. Menhaden fishing is also very common in the Gulf of Mexico.
The Atlantic States commission also had a chance to adopt a more "ecosystem-based" approach to managing menhaden, but chose instead to continue managing it as a single species. The way menhaden is managed in the future could hinge on a scientific assessment of the stock that is scheduled for 2019, said Tina Berger, a spokeswoman for the commission.
The commission's decision about the menhaden quota "balances menhaden's ecological role with the needs of its stakeholders," said Robert Ballou, chairman of the commission's menhaden board.