Small schooling fish like herring and anchovies, commonly known as forage fish, play a major role in the ocean's food web. This animated video shows how they are a crucial food source for larger species like whales and tuna. (The Pew Charitable Trusts)

The ocean’s smallest fish have gotten some big breaks in recent months.

Fearing that shad and river herring have been fished nearly to oblivion, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council dramatically lowered the amount that can be pulled up along with mackerel by fishing trawlers.

Another panel, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, slashed the amount of menhaden that can be harvested three miles offshore. The protections were hailed by environmentalists because the three fish are a staple for nearly every big fish and bird that preys on marine life.

Members of the Mid-Atlantic council were worried about the fish because “for all intents and purposes, they’ve disappeared,” said John McMurray, a trawler captain in Long Island, N.Y., who sits on the council.

He said the council’s vote to lower the shad and mackerel bycatch to 89 metric tons is historic because the bycatch limit had already been lowered from 900 metric tons from 236 last year. Such decisions usually take years.

Industrial fishing vessel catch Atlantic menhaden. (NOAA)

It reflects a sense of alarm about the shortage. In the Hudson River, where he has watched millions of the fish dart upstream to spawn in previous years, “they don’t exist,” McMurray said. Even though officials have made it easier for the anadromous fish to migrate from the ocean to freshwater rivers where they are born, “the fish aren’t coming back,” he said.

Known as forage fish, shad, herring and menhaden have an essential role in the ocean — to be eaten. Without them, bigger fish and birds of prey go hungry, and fishermen often have little to catch.

Overfishing is suspected as the cause of the near-cratering of the population. In the past 20 years, the number of river herring has fallen by nearly 100 percent, according to a Pew Environment report that refers to statistics compiled by the Herring Alliance.

American shad aren’t faring much better. At the Conowingo Hydroelectric Dam in Maryland, only 200,000 adult shad were counted in 2001 in the fish elevator that helps them cross the dam’s huge wall. Nine years later, that number fell to about 37,000.

Menhaden is so oily and bony that humans won’t eat it, but it’s still heavily fished to be turned into animal feed and fish oil. Over a half century, the Atlantic Coast stock declined from an estimated 90 billion that were a year old or younger to 18 billion in 2010.

In December 2012, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission that oversees ocean waters near the Chesapeake Bay reduced the amount of menhaden that can be commercially caught by 20 percent, to 170,800 metric tons.

Virginia state marine officials complained loudly, saying the reduction would hurt the economy. They said the lower catch would cut jobs at an Omega Protein Corp. processing plant in Reedsville, Va.

Bushels of menhaden pass under The Knapps Narrows drawbridge in Tilghman, Maryland. On Tilghman Island, watermen have been pound netting for generations. (Sarah L. Voisin/The Washington Post)

But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Nature Conservancy, Pew Environment and recreational fishermen fought back. Menhaden are dubbed “the most important fish in the sea” by conservationists for the range of wildlife they feed — eagles, hawks, storks, egrets and all manner of fish.

“East Coast managers have made huge strides to restore the foundation of the little fish that supply the food chain,” said Joseph Gordon, manager of U.S. oceans in the Northeast for Pew Charitable Trusts. “The councils are acting on the signals that there is significant depletion” from overfishing, he said.

The 15 states with representatives on the commission said they enforced the catch limit. That resulted in 300 million more menhaden in the ocean, Gordon said, citing an estimate provided by Pew.

A similar recovery by shad and river herring might not come so quickly, McMurray said. Off the coast of Massachusetts, trawlers for Atlantic herring have no limit on shad and herring bycatch.

McMurray said the New England Fishery Management Council that oversees that fishery is working on a cap. Like the others, it will take time to develop and will probably encounter resistance from Atlantic herring fishermen.

Shad and herring are culturally important to the United States, having fed the Continental Army at Valley Forge when George Washington’s soldiers were on the verge of starvation in 1778.

The two species were heavily fished until most states on the Atlantic placed a moratorium on their river fisheries.

For the ocean fishery, the New England council should follow the example of the Mid-Atlantic on shad and herring, said Bill Goldsborough, fisheries program director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

Conservation advocates welcomed last week’s 60 percent reduction. “I guess I was pleasantly surprised they moved to the next step so quickly,” Goldsborough said.