Volume 13, Issue 34 ~ August 25 - 31, 2005
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Burton on The Bay
By Bill Burton

So Much Depends on Menhaden

Without a healthy menhaden stock there will be no jobs.
—John Hocevar,

Greenpeace oceans campaigner

Methinks John Hocevar is right.

Allow me to elaborate on how right he is.

Without a healthy menhaden stock, there would be no jobs for those who set the nets for these oily fish used in making not only Omega 3, the popular dietary supplement, but also pet food, fertilizer and so many other things, including food for fish in aquaculture and livestock on farms.

Without a healthy menhaden stock there would be far fewer rockfish and other sportsfish because menhaden are the basic aquatic creature in the food chain of not only the Chesapeake but also the Atlantic.

The bottom line is that without a healthy menhaden stock, as John Hocevar said, there would be no jobs — and he wasn’t just referring to the 250 jobs associated with the Omega operation at Reedville, Virginia.

No Relief
Last week we covered the welcomed entry of Greenpeace into the fray concerning the factory overfishing of menhaden. Since, there has been a curious development, which I would refer to as inaction rather than action.

Meeting in Virginia as we were going to press last week, the group that bears the responsibility of seeing there is a healthy menhaden stock in both the Atlantic and the Chesapeake broke with what might be called tradition. For the first time ever, a cap was placed on menhaden catches in the Bay.

For several years, those concerned about menhaden have urged a cap be placed on the purse seine catch in Virginia’s share of the Bay. But one questions the validity of a cap that seems inadequate to ensure healthy stocks. Get this: The annual cap for the next five years was set at the average of what it has been the past five years.

That’s no reduction. That’s status quo, and under status quo we have seen stocks continue to slide. The only consolation is that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission turned thumbs down on the pro-Omega suggestion of a cap 30 percent above current fishing levels.

Greenpeace gripes that the Commission cap allows a greater catch than pulled from the Bay in 2004. The Commission wouldn’t consider a moratorium, though 20,000 people urged it, and there was no consideration of capping the ocean catch or meaningful other curtailments such as banning spotter planes that lead netting vessels to menhaden schools or changing net-mesh size to allow smaller menhaden to escape.

Empty Stomachs
The Richmond Times Dispatch tells us that last year, the 10 fishing vessels in Omega’s Reedville fleet caught 180 metric tons of menhaden, making that tiny Eastern Shore village third in the nation in terms of landings.

As menhaden populations dip, one wonders if anyone was listening when Jim Uphoff of Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources said, “There’s nothing in the Bay that can take the place of menhaden.” Or when fifth-generation waterman Jim Price of Talbot County talked of catching rockfish with empty stomachs. For 40 years, he has examined the contents of the stomachs of rockfish he caught. Once they were packed with menhaden; now they’re empty. What’s more, they carried no fat. “Everything was shrunk up and small,” he said.

Small wonder we’re seeing more sick rockfish with unsightly red blemishes. With insufficient food, fish are stressed and vulnerable. Maybe that’s why the big bluefish no longer come into the Chesapeake in incredible numbers. One doesn’t go to a restaurant if it has no food; why would an ocean fish like blues come here to eat? Fish go where the food is.

Maryland Voices
At an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission hearing in Annapolis on the menhaden issue, here’s what a few activists had to say:

Charles Hutchinson, chairman of the Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishermen’s Association Menhaden Committee, called for a coast-wide moratorium on industrial purse seining of menhaden, citing a 1998 University of Maryland study that the filtering of nitrogen in the Bay by menhaden was 50 times the value of the fish to the Reedville fleet.

Dan Sides, a member of the Sportsfishermen’s Association, said menhaden’s filtering effect could “defray some of the $30 billion cost needed to clean up the Bay.” With oysters going down the tube, menhaden are the foremost filtering agent of the Chesapeake.

Decreasing numbers of Bay menhaden not only impact success among Maryland sports and commercial fishermen, it also poses health problems among predatory fish such as stripers, bluefish, sea trout and others whose traditional food-fish supply is lacking.

And, when fisheries managers began talking seriously about the impact of the Reedville fleet’s catches, Virginia’s Gov. Warner made a call to our Gov. Ehrlich expressing his concern for the Virginia menhaden fishery. Ehrlich responded by saying the issue was very important to Maryland, that we had a great stake in it, so we were going along with our scientists concerned about overcatch.

At the Annapolis hearing there was testimony from only one commercial fisherman, a pound netter who was concerned that his small-stake netting operation to catch menhaden for bait for crabbers and fishermen would be affected. It wouldn’t. Purse seining isn’t allowed in Maryland, so watermen here are caught in the middle. A cap could mean more sports finfish to catch in Maryland, but watermen are known to close ranks when one segment — here their Virginia brothers — is under fire. It’s a tough call for them.

Chuck Prahl of Cambridge, a life-long fisherman and outdoor writer, said he no longer sees the acres of menhaden rippling atop Bay waters as they feed. “We’re getting less and less of them in the Bay, and the rockfish don’t have enough to eat. We need more than a cap, we need a moratorium — before it’s too late.” And, he added, “it’s going to take a long time to correct what we’ve already done.

When I asked Mike Slattery, assistant DNR Secretary for fish and wildlife, his reaction, before an overflow crowd of more than 200 at the Annapolis meeting, he responded, “It’s quite clear to me that the conservation and recreational fishing community is extremely passionate about the issue. Public demand for management action is growing very rapidly.”

Five years ago, I became concerned about the menhaden situation and issued a warning in this very newspaper. Why have we waited so long to do so little? Enough said.

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