Charles Williams's words have a fighting spirit. The retired menhaden fisherman rages about seafood imported from Asia, the greed of recreational anglers, coastal overdevelopment and all the problems afflicting the industry in which he has spent his life. But in his voice is the sound of defeat.

"Ultimately, they will win; they will close us down. And that's what they want," said Williams, 58, resentment and resignation clear in his voice.

Controversy has been growing over the past decade about the menhaden, an oily, bony fish environmentalists consider perhaps the most important fish in the ocean. While people don't eat menhaden, many popular sport fish do, and recreational fishing advocates and some scientists say the industry has been dangerously overfishing the species from its East Coast base in the tiny Virginia town of Reedville.

But controversy shifted to panic around Reedville last month, when the agency that manages fisheries from Maine to Florida approved the first-ever cap on menhaden fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. In the vote, the board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission capped the annual catch at 105,800 metric tons a year. In the meantime, research will begin into whether commercial fishing is harming the menhaden stocks and by extension the fish that eat it.

Most people have never heard of menhaden, even though it is found in everything from paint to salad dressing to cattle feed because of its high protein. It also is one of the key sources of omega-3 fatty acid, which has been growing in popularity for use as a dietary supplement.

Yet as the fish's use has ballooned, challenges have slowly squeezed the commercial fishers who catch it. While there were once dozens of menhaden processing plants on the East Coast, every state except Virginia and North Carolina has since banned the plants. Today there are just two facilities: one in Beaufort, N.C., and one in the Northern Neck town of Reedville.

Reedville, population 300, processes about 25 percent of the menhaden used by Houston-based Omega Protein Corp., the nation's largest manufacturer of omega-3.

After a decade of lobbying, environmentalists and recreational fishing advocates are elated about the vote of the fisheries commission board. The commission said it had received more public comment on the menhaden issue than on any other in the agency's 55-year history: 20,000 letters and e-mails.

Concerns about the overfishing of menhaden have become more acute over the past couple of years because of signs of stress and malnutrition in their predators, such as the striped bass, and data show that the number of young menhaden in waters along the East Coast has been low for a decade. Although there are no hard data about menhaden populations in the Chesapeake Bay, activists say it makes sense to worry about this region when it is the only place where the industry is allowed to fish off the coast.

"Menhaden are seen as an indicator species of the general health of the bay," said Amy Kenney, a fisheries specialist for the group Environmental Defense.

Environmental Defense is part of a coalition called Menhaden Matter, which led the push for the cap. The group also includes the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Coastal Conservation Association and the National Coalition for Marine Conservation. To these groups, the fact that it's taken so long to get a cap reflects the industry's clout.

Menhaden is the only species the commission manages that has not had catch limits, and it remains the only fish in Virginia that is regulated by the legislature and not the state regulatory agency, the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

"Over many years there have been many bills introduced to give [the Virginia Marine Resources Commission] regulatory authority, but they have always been opposed by the commercial sector, and that has influence on the General Assembly," said Jack Travelstead, chief of the agency's fisheries management division.

The General Assembly is required to pass legislation codifying the Atlantic states' commission rules, but Travelstead said a fight is likely. "I don't think it's a done deal by any means," he said.

The Reedville plant has become more important to Omega Protein since Hurricane Katrina; the remaining 75 percent of the company's menhaden processing facilities are in Louisiana and Mississippi. The company potentially lost 16 percent of its operating capacity in the storm, said company spokesman Toby Gascon.

The cap affects only "purse-seine" fisheries, which are the few large companies that use spotter planes to find schools of menhaden, then drop huge nets and use vacuums to scoop them up onto boats. The cap doesn't include people who catch menhaden for bait, which accounts for about 20 percent of the menhaden caught. But that hasn't stopped bait fishers from being angry. They believe they will be targeted next.

"The recreational fishing people, they don't want us to exist. They want to shut the [menhaden] fishery down for their own greed," said Fred Rogers, who has two Reedville-based boats that catch menhaden for bait. "This is a battle that we'll be going through for the rest of my life. . . . We'll be fighting this until the day I die."

Menhaden is the main industry in Reedville, and some residents are angry that the cap was instituted without scientific evidence that menhaden populations in the Chesapeake Bay are low.

Tina Berger, spokeswoman for the fisheries commission, said the public's concern played a large role in the board's decision, despite the absence of "hard science."

"We live in an environment where fisheries management boards are moving toward a more precautionary approach," she said. "There is an increased threat of litigation from environmental groups. That has pushed groups -- not necessarily the commission -- to move in those ways."

To many Reedville residents, the cap is the beginning of the end. Although the Menhaden Matter Web site states that "it is not looking to shut down the industrial menhaden industry," many recreational fishing groups believe otherwise.

To Williams, the fisherman, the commission's decision is part of an anti-commercial fishing trend that he believes killed the oyster and crab industries in the bay. At the same time, U.S. citizens are eating more and more seafood imported from South America and Asia. It's part of a social conflict, he believes, caused by the increasing number of people who move to the coast, buy boats for weekend fishing, fertilize their lawns with chemicals that harm the bay and then point their fingers at Reedville's 130-year-old menhaden industry.

"It could be that we have too many people encroaching on our waterways, too much development, too much run off," he wrote in an editorial in the Northumberland County newspaper, following the vote. "Could it be that we're going after the symptom and not the problem?"

Greenpeace members stage a marine demonstration near the Omega Protein fleet and menhaden factory in Reedville, Va.