Menhaden may or may not be the most important fish in the sea, but the oily little fish is again generating a pretty big debate about how many of them can be caught along the Atlantic coast and still leave enough behind for other fish and wildlife to eat.

A little more than two years after authorities clamped down on harvests of Atlantic menhaden, prompting protests from Maryland watermen and other commercial fishermen, a new analysis by scientists finds they are in better shape — better, in fact, than believed when the catch was cut back.

The most heavily harvested fish on the East Coast, menhaden are caught for processing into animal feed and health supplements, and for use as bait in catching other fish, including crabs and lobsters. But menhaden also happen to be a prime food source for many other fish and birds, including striped bass, or rockfish.

More than three-fourths of the coastwide catch is netted by Omega Protein's fishing fleet, operating out of Reedville, Va. The company and its Virginia supporters had protested the earlier catch restrictions, as had watermen.

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