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Volume 16, Issue 7 - February 14 - February 20, 2008


An Embattled Fishery's Historic Fleet

A few months ago, an email arrived from a fellow named Svenn Martinsen in Norway (where else would Svenn be?) inquiring about the menhaden fishing ships plying Virginia waters in Chesapeake Bay.

Martinsen was researching the old days of radio broadcasting, and he had suspicions that one of the menhaden vessels, the Earl J. Conrad, was known for music long before it went hunting for oily fish.

The email, in addition to speaking to the wonders of the Internet, propelled Bay Weekly’s Ben Miller on a research project of his own that led to this week’s feature about the heritage of some of the ships harvesting all those menhaden.

We thought World War II vessels ended up in museums or as riverfront attractions drawing tourists. Or were sent to Third World lands to be salvaged in dangerous ways, as reported in The Baltimore Sun famous Ship Breaking series a few years back.

Now we find that some of these huge vessels are steaming about on Chesapeake Bay in pursuit of a tiny fish vital to our ecosystem.

This is not your usual story about the menhaden fishery.

As you’ll read, the Conrad not only served in World War II but also lived — as Svenn thought — to air pirate radio broadcasts back in the 1960s.

Miller writes a far-reaching story, not only describing some of the changes these vessels have gone through but also documenting the importance of the menhaden industry to Virginia communities.

As he also points out, the industry is controversial. Omega Protein, the Texas company that operates the ships, has come under intense criticism from conservationists and from many Marylanders disturbed about the ongoing effects of removing a vital link to the Bay’s food chain.

Menhaden is not just good food for bigger fish, including our prized rockfish. Like oysters, menhaden also help purify the Bay. Research has showed that a school of just a few thousand menhaden can help purify more than one million gallons of water every hour. So the fish help get rid of nutrients that create the oxygen-stealing algae blooms that lead to Chesapeake dead zones.

That’s why the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission placed the first-ever limits on the menhaden harvest two years ago and why Maryland Congressman Wayne Gilchrest has introduced legislation that would ban menhaden fishing in state and federal East Coast waters for five years while studies are conducted to assess the health of the fishery.

We may or may not conclude that we’re making a mistake allowing the vast harvests of these valuable fish. For now, it’s useful to learn as much as we can about this fishery and the history that goes with it.

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