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Catch limits imposed on menhaden have sparked a population rebound

RACHEL MARTIN, HOST:

All right, a little nature news now - small fish called menhaden play a vital ecological role as food for striped bass, seals, osprey, even whales. For years, they were disappearing along the Atlantic coast. To restore the population, regulators put limits on fishing them. It worked, and now the menhaden are back. Murray Carpenter reports from Maine's Penobscot Bay.

MURRAY CARPENTER: When menhaden are abundant, the fish swim near shore in large schools that can darken the water. And the oily fish are a foundation of coastal ecosystems from Florida to Maine. The population was depleted for years due to overfishing, mostly to supply a large Chesapeake Bay plant, processing them into animal feed and nutritional supplements. But catch limits imposed nearly a decade ago have sparked a population rebound, and that's why this fishing crew is gathering on a dock in Rockland Harbor, Maine, an hour before sunrise.

JODY MARTIN: It's a beautiful day. Look at the weather. It's, like, calm on the water, and we're going to be blasting off just as soon as everybody gets here.

CARPENTER: That's Jody Martin, who is at the helm this morning, hoping to catch the limit of 17 barrels of menhaden for lobster bait. In two larger boats and a skiff, the crew of six motors out into Rockland Harbor. And before the sun clears the horizon, Jamie Steeves spots the first school of menhaden, which are also called pogies or bunker.

JAMIE STEEVES: They're right off in Ross' starboard. See them off his starboard?

CARPENTER: The crew quickly sets the net over the transom as the boat encircles the school of fish. As they work, harbor seals slash through nearby schools of menhaden and bald eagles fly by, hoping to scavenge a meal. In September, this crew was surprised to net an enormous 600-pound bluefin tuna. Typically found offshore, the tuna had chased the menhaden into shallow water. Kate Wilke, a fisheries scientist with the Nature Conservancy, says the recovery is bringing wildlife drama to the coastline.

KATE WILKE: You can be just offshore of New York City and see all the beautiful skyline behind you and then see whales just frolicking in these huge schools of menhaden and sharks just, like, splashing through the water on a feeding frenzy. So it really is National Geographic-like.

CARPENTER: And Wilke says the fishing regulations have been updated to include ecological reference points.

WILKE: They consider the needs of predators in the mathematical calculations and leave enough menhaden in the water both to reproduce for the menhaden themselves but also to feed the animals.

CARPENTER: In Penobscot Bay, the crew quickly fills their barrels and motors back to port. After salting the fish and packing them into a refrigerator, Steeves sits on the dock as a seal watches from the water.

STEEVES: Just seems like everything on the shoreline is feeding on them this year. We've seen a lot of tuna, obviously a lot of seals. But a lot of stripers are making a comeback. Everybody's been successful sport fishing this year, so all the way around, I think it's great for the industry, just great for fishing in general.

CARPENTER: The schools will head south soon, but they'll probably be back next year. As climate change warms the Gulf of Maine rapidly, it's putting species like the North Atlantic right whale at risk, but modeling suggests that menhaden might actually benefit from the warmer waters and will likely be abundant for some time to come.

For NPR News, I'm Murray Carpenter.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIBIO'S "A COUPLE SWIM") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.