There was a big fight over a little fish Friday when the board that regulates Atlantic coast fishing reached a historic vote to reduce the catch of menhaden, widely called the most important fish in the sea.

Fearing that the oily menhaden is being overfished to near collapse by an industry that sells it worldwide for oil, animal feed and sport fishing bait, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to limit the total that can be harvested in a year to 170,800 metric tons, a 20 percent reduction in the average catch over the past three years.

Hundreds of fishermen, members of environmental groups, environmental activists and sport fishing enthusiasts crowded a hotel ballroom in Baltimore to witness the first-ever catch limit set for menhaden. In a half-century of overfishing, the stock has shown a dramatic decline from 90 billion fish that were 1 year old or younger 50 years ago, to 18 billion that same age in 2010, according to the commission.

The 13 to 3 vote to rebuild the population was cheered by environmental groups and activists who dubbed menhaden the most important fish because it is a staple diet for large predator fish such as whales and porpoises, and large birds such as eagles and osprey.

But Virginia state marine officials and fishermen said it would devastate a fishing economy valued at $40 million, leading to job cuts at the state’s menhaden processing plants in Reedville and down a long supply chain.

Virginia is the only state among 15 represented on the commission that allows a corporate fishing organization, Omega Protein, to harvest menhaden. Eighty percent of menhaden harvested on the Atlantic coast are caught in Virginia, which will bear the brunt of the cut’s impact.

“We will put Virginia out of business, said James Kellum, a fisherman who sells menhaden to Omega Protein. “I don’t know how we’ll survive. Even the smallest cut “may be the difference between a man being able to feed his family and a man not being able to feed his family.

When Kellum suggested at the end of his statement that the reduction was unnecessary because the menhaden “stock is healthy, the audience erupted with catcalls and booing, which drew a firm rebuke from the commission chairman.

“No! I will clear this room, shouted Louis B. Daniel III, the chairman. “No outbursts, please! We have extremely qualified commissioners around this table and they will be allowed to give their opinion. At least four Maryland Natural Resources Police officers stood by.

But Kellum and Jack Travelstead, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission director, who sat beside him, could not stop the action they fought at every step, first putting forth a motion to wait two years before acting, and when that failed, putting forth motions to shave a significant percentage off each limit proposed.

“I’m sympathetic to Virginia, said William J. Goldsborough, Chesapeake Bay Foundation fisheries director, who sits on the commission. But “I think we’re at a point where 80 percent of the catch is being taken by one jurisdiction, and 80 percent of the effect is going to happen there. It’s a high risk, high reward prospect.

Goldsborough strongly endorsed the 20 percent reduction, knowing that the 25 percent drop coveted by his organization was unlikely.

The vote was a good first step, said Jay Odell, Mid-Atlantic marine program director for the Nature Conservancy. “We recognize that the commission needed to chart a course to bring the management of menhaden into the 21st Century.

H. Bruce Franklin, whose book, “The Most Important Fish In the Sea, brought the plight of menhaden to light, wanted a larger reduction but settled for what he got.

“This is historic… because they’ve done nothing to protect this fish, Franklin said. “It’s the basis of the food chain. It has the omega-3 fatty acids that all these predators need to survive.

But the historic vote saddened Ken Pinkard, a representative of the United Food and Commercial Workers union that serves the mostly black community of fishermen who’ve worked the ocean off Reedville for more than a century.

“We don’t know exactly what the job loss will be, what the impact is, he said. “Put it this way, when I go home today I’m going to make 20 percent less than last year. It’s scary. Really scary.

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