Volume 13, Issue 33 ~ August 18 - 24, 2005
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Burton on The Bay
By Bill Burton
Greenpeace activists took to the water in a fleet ranging from kayaks to big boats to demand that Omega Protein curtail its massive factory harvests of menhaden.

Hardball Scores Where Words Often Evaporate

Action is eloquence.
—William Shakespeare

Though I’ve not heard those three words used by Greenpeace in its self-promotions, methinks it would be an appropriate motto for this highly visible environmental organization that campaigns worldwide for healthy oceans and sustainable fisheries.

Greenpeace plays hardball.

Not infrequently hardball scores. Not infrequently words evaporate.

So I welcome Washington-based Greenpeace to Chesapeake Country — on behalf of myself, other fishermen, Bay supporters and sportsfish such as striped bass, blues, sea trout, Spanish mackerel, as well as the fish so many of these predators feast upon, lowly menhaden.

Since 1971, Greenpeace has been a leading voice for the environmental movement, making headlines in more than a few campaigns to stop overkill of creatures and the environment even at the price of the lives of its campaigners. Its philosophy is that actions speak louder than words.

Big Things in Small Packages
Until recently, it was words more than action in the battle to save menhaden from the nets of factory fishermen, primarily in Chesapeake Bay. Menhaden — also called bunker, pogies and alewives, depending on where one fishes — are near the bottom of the ocean aquatic-life chain.

But big things can come in small packages, and small as menhaden are — on average a few inches to 10 or more — they are invaluable in the ecology of the waters in which they swim along the Atlantic Coast and the Gulf of Mexico. They’re filter feeders, and like oysters they cleanse the waters of the Chesapeake, which alone makes their presence critical.

Equally important, they are the prime targets of predatory gamefish that frequent the Chesapeake. Without their presence in our Bay, there would be little reason for the annual migration hereabouts of rockfish and so many other species important to both commerce and sport. Of late there have been increasingly solid indications that menhaden populations are being overfished, primarily by the Omega Protein factory fleet out of Reedville, Virginia.

More than a few observers in the sportsfishing, commercial and scientific communities suggest that rockfish leave the Chesapeake earlier in life than previously because of too few menhaden to accommodate the increasing striper population. Others insist fewer menhaden means lesser water quality of the Chesapeake, seeing that oysters, the other primary Bay cleansing agent, are also on the wane.

Good Words, But Just Words
In the past several years, organized sportsfishermen and other environmental interests have begun to fight vigorously on behalf of the menhaden. Indeed, it’s the biggest current controversy in the Chesapeake. But their scrap has been via words. Sound and forceful as their words are, they are just that.

Meanwhile, the cocky and Virginia-backed Omega Protein continues to pack its vessels with menhaden that could be cleansing the Bay and, like a magnet, attracting sportsfish from the ocean.

Realization has finally set in. In June more than a couple hundred attended an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries meeting in Annapolis to assess the plight of menhaden and consider putting a cap on their catches. More words; good words, but just words.

I was there; I listened to the words of 29 citizens who demanded a cap on menhaden-factory catches in the Bay if not on the entire coast. Many wanted to close the fishery down, declaring a moratorium. Basically, the arguments were the same; save the Bay’s filter feeders for cleaner waters, save the Bay’s menhaden to feed the sportsfish.

Backing up Words with Action
The testimony of one woman wasn’t different from the rest, but when Beth Fitzgerald stood up to speak — before she even said a word past identifying herself — I said to myself, uh-oh. I knew the tone of the campaign was about to change. Fitzgerald was speaking on behalf of Greenpeace.

To start off her short testimony, she referred to Jim Uphoff’s Maryland Department of Natural Resources study that claimed a “linkage between the decline in health of striped bass in the Chesapeake and the decline in menhaden.” A further concern, she said, is that rockfish, “in the absence of menhaden, turn to other commercial and recreationally important species for a food source, such as blue crab, thereby displacing the problem to other parts of the marine ecosystem.” She asked for a coast-wide moratorium on the reduction fishery.

Though not always a supporter of Greenpeace, I had followed its campaigns sufficiently to know that the organization backs up its words with action. They’re a fearless lot; they don’t back down, even for the Navy of France, which took some lives while trying to crush one of their demonstrations. So what fear would they have going head to head with commercial fishermen, tough as that kind can be when their livelihoods are threatened.

Once the plight of menhaden had grabbed Greenpeace’s attention, I knew all hell could break loose.

Not long after, Greenpeace activists and supporters in craft from kayaks to big boats demonstrated at Reedville to demand curtailments. That was just the beginning.

Two weeks ago, Greenpeace took more of a hands-on approach to saving tens of thousands menhaden from the nets of the commercial fleet out of Reedville. It faced up to the men with the nets.

Greenpeace activists in boats dispersed schools of menhaden in the lower Bay before Omega Protein’s factory fishing boats were able to surround the fish with their nets. That took guts, more guts than speaking out. As I said, commercial fishermen don’t take lightly to efforts to curtail their catches. They, too, can play hardball.

That incident also went off without more serious consequences, but who knows what’s to come as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meets this week to make some decisions on capping menhaden catches.

Next week, we’ll go into the trenches of the menhaden controversy. Stay tuned.

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