Volume 12, Issue 30 ~ July 22-28, 2004
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Burton on the Bay
by Bill Burton

Big demand for a little fish

Money is the root of all evil.
– Can you guess the source?

Hard as I tried to learn who first spoke those seven oft-repeated words, I struck out. In no publication could I find a clue of any kind. Yet they are the key to saving a fish I believe in trouble.

Until recently, lack of money didn’t play well for the fish so important to Chesapeake Bay; too much money, likewise. It all depends who holds the purse strings.

And the Answer Is
After looking at those words at the top of the screen of my Apple computer as I tried to start writing, it dawned on me there were three likely sources: 1. the Bible; 2. Aldous Huxley; 3. George Bernard Shaw.

So, at the risk of fermenting the ire of the editor of this publication who, let’s put it this way, demands her copy on schedule, I again rummaged through the reference books. Of course I found it under No. 3, the last. In discovering this, I also learned why I failed to find the source in some volumes of familiar quotations.

The seven words above are two words short of the whole quote, and the two missing are at the beginning. Thanks to the thick paperback The Great Quotations, the Wit and Wisdom of the Ages, edited by George Seldes, I found that in Man and Superman, The Revolutionist’s Handbook, Shaw wrote “Lack of money is the root of all evil.”

Too bad for me he tacked “lack of” at the beginning of his famed quote because in this week’s topic, it’s too much money that is the deepest root of evil insofar as the welfare of menhaden of Chesapeake Bay are concerned.

If George Bernard Shaw could hear me, I’d tell him it’s sometimes easier to solve a predicament rooted in a shortage of money than to overcome one rooted in an excess of moola. Therein lies the story of East Coast menhaden (also known as bunker, pogies and alewives) stocks, particularly those that swim in schools of millions upon millions in our Bay.

Our Bay’s Dietary Staple
What’s money got to do with a fatty, oily fish that you and I wouldn’t eat unless on the verge of starvation? Well, rockfish aren’t as finicky about what’s on the menu. Such a fatty fish packs much energy and nutrients that wrap up the dietary need of not only rockfish but also many other fish we catch via both hook and nets.

Rockfish and blues will chase after a school of menhaden for hours to fill their bellies. Methinks that rockfish lacking menhaden in their diet during much of the year would be as thin as a pickerel if not an eel. So would sea trout, bluefish, Spanish mackerel and to some extent hardheads, red drum, black drum, even flounder. I wouldn’t be surprised if at some time or other, smaller menhaden — or parts of it falling toward the floor of the Bay after being partially eaten by a larger predator — has ended up in the stomach of just about every finfish from white perch up in size.

In the warmer months, mashed or cut-up menhaden is the ingredient of most chum lines fished for rockfish and blues. Indeed, every fish imaginable has been caught by anglers baiting up with pieces of menhaden. I can’t think of a finfish or even a crab of any size that wouldn’t chomp on a piece of menhaden within reach.

Perhaps a tidbit of soft crab might be preferred, but if something is hungry enough, well, beggars can’t be choosers. I guess that’s why people eat blood sausage, tripe, zucchini squash, fried eels and calamari, that fancified word for squid.

Land Markets Up the Ante
Of late, we’ve been overfishing menhaden. Really not we; rather, the commercial fleet out of Reedville, Virginia. In Maryland, trawlers can’t fish menhaden, though pound netters take some small quantities. But what goes on in free-wheeling Virginia can impact fishes and fishing elsewhere.

Traditionally, menhaden were caught for things like cat food and fertilizer, maybe fish meal in under-developed countries. But of late there is a demand for more menhaden as a basic in the oily diet of fish raised via aquaculture.

The little fish have also come to be sought by health-conscious consumers. They want Omega 3 fatty acids to perk them up, which accounts for more money than changes hands in making fertilizer and cat food.

Omega Protein Corp., which is involved with the Reedville menhaden fleet, makes more than a few bucks from Omega 3, enough that it wields a big stick in Virginia. It’s a potent lobby in that state, thanks to its operation that provides so many jobs on boats and shoreside.

As we all know, money talks. So there’s no question but that money can be the root of evil in this situation.

Good News and Bad
So intense is the pressure that we’re seeing solid indications that menhaden are being overfished. Many sports and charter fishermen attribute skinny rockfish to a scarcity of the fatty species. More than a few allege that in summer we don’t have much of a population of stripers 18 inches or more because most have left the Bay to find menhaden elsewhere.

Coastal authorities tell us coastal stocks are not overfished, though most Bay observers say Chesapeake menhaden are. They’ve been clamoring for a Bay study separate from the coast, only to hear that funding within Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission wasn’t available. Here, lack of money is also the root of evil.

Bay menhaden trawling couldn’t be forced back without statistics, and no money meant no stats — even as many feared that rockfish and other fishes were packing up to abandon the Bay for other lunchrooms. Fish go where their food is.

Financially hard pressed as Maryland Department of Natural Resources is, it decided to fund the study. So after years we’re going to have a couple of workshops to dig into whether there really is a significant change in the status of menhaden stock in the Bay.

Whatever DNR learns, money will still play a role. Omega 3 Corp. won’t give up easily. Neither will the state of Virginia; we’ve all seen what they do down there with crabs, clams and oysters. Also, non-menhaden commercial fishermen of Virginia — to a lesser degree in Maryland, too — don’t much appreciate cutbacks to net fishing. They don’t want to see precedents set.

Meanwhile, in the Bay this year, we note more smaller menhaden than in a long time. That’s good news and bad. It’s good to see the fish, but their presence feeds the notion that there’s no menhaden problem, just a few bad years.

Meanwhile, we must sit by the sidelines, watching, waiting and hoping that coastal fisheries managers do as they’re supposed to: Play things conservatively. There’s no sense hoping Virginia authorities and Omega 3 will do the same.

Money — whether too much or too little — is evil’s root. Enough said.

© COPYRIGHT 2004 by New Bay Enterprises, Inc. All rights reserved.