WRIGHTSVILLE BEACH, NC - DECEMBER 19:  Thousands of dead menhaden fish are seen on the beach on December 19, 2005 in Wrightsville Beach, North Carolina. Environmentalist and the North Carolina Division of Marine Fisheries are speculating that the cause of death may have been caused by a drastic change in water temperature or a large fishing net that broke. Fish and water samples have been sent to the state capital of Raleigh for testing, the results being expected later this week. (Photo by Logan Mock-Bunting/Getty Images)

The decline in the Atlantic menhaden population over the past few decades is staggering: An 88 percent drop in numbers between 1979 and 2009. The population that once measured close to 200 billion is down to less than 200 billion. The fish that some believe to be the most important in the sea is on the verge of collapse. The main culprit? Commercial harvesting.

Recreational anglers up and down the Atlantic seaboard have noticed the increased absence of this essential cog in the food chain. The groups that represent those anglers are joining together to do something about it. A total of 34 organizations, from local chapters of the Coastal Conservation Association to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation to Bass Pro Shops–click here for the full list–have signed on to form a grass-roots conservation campaign called The Menhaden Coalition.

Jerry Benson, the Vice President of CCA Virginia, is one of main people responsible for organizing this coalition. His home State still allows commercial harvest of menhaden for reduction in the Chesapeake Bay–the main nursery for striped bass–to the tune of 240 million pounds a year. Where does the commercial harvest go? Into Omega-3 protein for fish oil capsules, and into farmed fish and livestock feed. And fertilizer.

Benson has been fighting to get Virginia to change its menhaden management policies, and hopes this coalition–formed in January 2010–will have an impact up and down the coast.

“We have organizations from New Jersey to North Carolina involved,” he said over the phone. The ultimate goal is to work with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to set restrictions of commercial menhaden harvesting to more sustainable levels to allow the population to recover.

We hope they can make an impact. Otherwise, this graph will continue its downward slope.