In what fisheries experts are calling an historic measure to curb overfishing, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted late last week to reduce the fishing of menhaden by 20 per cent in the coming year.

The 20 per cent reduction takes effect July 1, 2013.

Menhaden, a primary food source for many other Atlantic fish including striped bass, bluefish, cod and swordfish, have come under close scrutiny in recent years as their numbers have declined sharply. The fish is principally harvested and landed in Virginia, but is taken by fishing boats up and down the Atlantic seaboard.

The commission decision to cut the landing to 170,800 metric tons is 20 per cent less than what has been landed on average in the last three years.

Ms. Berger said it was the most well-attended meeting she had seen in 19 years.

More than 350 people crowded into a hotel room in Baltimore on Dec. 14, many carrying placards and signs, to watch the commission debate and deliberate the cuts. Conservation groups and recreational fishermen favor protection of menhaden. A smaller number who attended opposed the cuts. It was not a public hearing, so there was no opportunity for comment, but the crowd in the room registered their position by holding up cards that named their state and said “I support menhaden conservation.”

“This is probably the most well-attended meeting I have ever seen. It was a really interesting process. There were a lot of passionate stake holders on all sides of the issue,” said Tina Berger, a spokesman for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Ms. Berger has worked for the commission for 19 years. She said during the deliberation there were motions on the table to cut the fishing effort from 10 to 25 per cent. “There was a lot of dialogue by the board,” she said. The board members represented 14 states along the eastern seaboard, from Maine to Virginia. Representatives from the National Marine Fisheries Service also attended.

“They tried to strike a balance of what the science is saying and the reliability of the science,” Ms. Berger said.

Discussion and voting went on all day. The final vote was 13 to 3 to reduce the catch by 20 per cent.

Soon after the decision, Gov. Martin O’Malley of Maryland said in a statement: “Today’s actions by ASMFC goes beyond menhaden. Maryland’s many other fish and marine mammals — the striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, dolphins, ospreys and bald eagles — will also benefit as they use Atlantic menhaden as a primary food source. After overfishing Atlantic menhaden for 52 of the past 54 years, resulting in historical low levels of abundance, overfishing will end and Atlantic menhaden will be given an opportunity to rebuild its population.”

Omega Protein, a Virginia-based company that fishes all along the Atlantic seaboard and has been harvesting menhaden for fish oil, issued a response. “Omega Protein has been fishing these Atlantic waters for a century and no one is more interested in the sustainability of the resource than we are. However, we are disappointed by the ASMFC’s decision to adopt these harvest reductions,” said chief executive officer Bret D. Scholtes.

Once abundant all along the eastern

seaboard, this fall menhaden were seen in Edgartown harbor for the first time in 20 years. Menhaden are filter feeders, like river herring. They feed on algae and phytoplankton.

David Pierce, deputy director of the Massachusetts Division of Marine Fisheries and a voting member of the ASMFC, told the Gazette later that he had made a motion for a 25 per cent cut. “I don’t think it [20 per cent] was enough . . . It was a compromise. It is a beginning,” he said.

Mr. Pierce said that the Massachusetts commercial quota will be one per cent of the 170 metric tons in the new year. “We are all cutting back,” he said.

He concluded: “It was a good outcome. That was one of the best-attended board meetings I have ever attended.

“This all related to an ecological solution. Menhaden are not only forage fish. They have an importance in the ecosystem.”