||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 didnt 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, lets 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 Revolutionists 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 weeks topic, its 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, Id tell him its 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 Bays Dietary Staple
Whats money got to do with a fatty, oily fish that you and I wouldnt eat unless on the verge of starvation? Well, rockfish arent as finicky about whats 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 wouldnt 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 cant think of a finfish or even a crab of any size that wouldnt 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 cant be choosers. I guess thats why people eat blood sausage, tripe, zucchini squash, fried eels and calamari, that fancified word for squid.
Land Markets Up the Ante
Of late, weve been overfishing menhaden. Really not we; rather, the commercial fleet out of Reedville, Virginia. In Maryland, trawlers cant 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. Its 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 theres no question but that money can be the root of evil in this situation.
Good News and Bad
So intense is the pressure that were 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 dont 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. Theyve been clamoring for a Bay study separate from the coast, only to hear that funding within Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission wasnt available. Here, lack of money is also the root of evil.
Bay menhaden trawling couldnt 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 were 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. wont give up easily. Neither will the state of Virginia; weve 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 dont much appreciate cutbacks to net fishing. They dont want to see precedents set.
Meanwhile, in the Bay this year, we note more smaller menhaden than in a long time. Thats good news and bad. Its good to see the fish, but their presence feeds the notion that theres 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 theyre supposed to: Play things conservatively. Theres no sense hoping Virginia authorities and Omega 3 will do the same.
Money whether too much or too little is evils root. Enough said.