Volume 14, Issue 42 ~ October 19 - October 25, 2006

Burton on the Bay

By Bill Burton

The Sad Story of Menhaden

And that’s not our only problem

What a sad irony — and loss of tradition and culture — it would be if the fleet named for the last name of the Greek Alphabet [omega] became the last to set on menhaden.

—Kathy Bergen Smith of Galesville in the current issue of National Fisherman

This writer figures Ms. Smith, a busy freelancer, puts words together nicely; her work is interesting and smoothly written. But I can’t agree with her last paragraph (above) in the monthly magazine, which is truly the bible of commercial fishermen.

I would have written “What a happy irony …” You see, she was writing about Reedville, Va., and Omega Protein’s 11 purse seine boats of 140 to 200 feet that work Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake and the coast for menhaden. The little fish are considered a threatened if not endangered species in the Bay and possibly the Atlantic from New Jersey to North Carolina.

Omega is greedy. Its fleet, virtually the last and only one on the Atlantic Coast, caught in ’05, 147,000 metric tons of menhaden from the Chesapeake and the ocean. Of those, 98 million tons came from our Bay. Atlantic State’s Marine Fisheries Commission set a quota of 106,000 metric tons, but this month Virginia is seeking a hike of 3,000 additional metric tons.

Seeing that the average fleet-caught menhaden, according to National Fisherman weighs a pound, that’s more than six million additional menhaden for the Reedville fleet. That adds up to a hell of a lot of meals for Bay rockfish, which many a fisherman — sports, charter and commercial — claim are not getting enough oily menhaden in their diets and are turning to other species to fill their bellies. Also common are complaints that many stripers are underweight for their age due to competition for food.

For Omega’s $22 million income for 32.5 million netted menhaden, we’ve got a problem, a big problem, in our Maryland fishery. The menhaden is at the bottom of the food chain, which surely has a weak link. Need we be reminded that a chain is as strong only as its weakest link?

Another Chapter in the Sad Story

The sad story of menhaden goes beyond its value as a food fish of predatory sportsfish. Keep in mind that menhaden are filter feeders and, like oysters, do much to cleanse the Bay — probably more than $22 millions worth.

Ms. Smith wrote of spending two days with the Reedville fleet aboard the Shearwater, Omega’s second largest out of that port. It holds 1.5 million menhaden, which are located by seven spotter aircraft. Methinks that makes the effort like shooting fish in a barrel when there is a third of a mile net laid out between two boats working together.

In two sets of the net on one day, the total catch for the Shearwater was 425,000 fish that will be converted to fishmeal and fish oil. The season in the Bay continues from May through November. Before this year, there was no cap on catches.

Purse setting is surely good for the purse in Virginia, though the Reedville fleet’s catch for this year as of the end of September was 107,530 metric tons as compared with 115,556 for the same period last year and 119,457 for the five-year average. The decline is not because of conservation efforts; it’s because the catching gets tougher as the stock declines. Isn’t anyone paying attention to this quagmire?

That’s Not Our Only Problem

The impact of the deteriorating menhaden population is just one of many Bay problems. Isn’t anyone paying attention (or effort beyond talk and promises) to other Bay woes? While the menhaden slaughter continues out of Reedville, following are some of many other things we should be worrying about.

• In a summary of Chesapeake forests by the Conservation Fund, we are told that forests in the Bay Watershed are declining by 100 acres a day. Already 60 percent are fragmented by roads, subdivisions, farms and other human uses. If the trend continues, an additional 9.5 million acres of forests will be threatened by residential development.

• Development: Typical is the planned (though now stalled) 2,700 home development that threatens the Little Blackwater River at Blackwater National Wildlife Refuge in Dorchester County — with the support of county officials. Our legislators said it was a local issue and declined to act, but the State Critical Areas Commission turned thumbs down. After appeals, probable is a lesser development on the 313 acres of farms and wetlands. Where isn’t it happening along Chesapeake Bay?

• Still alive is the proposal to construct another Liquefied Natural Gas plant on the Patapsco, not far from the open waters of the upper Bay. Maryland Saltwater Sportsfishermen Association president Bill Windley says “it would be impossible to perform a dredging project of this magnitude without millions of pounds of spoils being released into the water contaminating the Bay and possibly some aquifers as well.”

• Diseased Rockfish: The problem is still around, red blemishes on rockfish, and in some places as bad as last year though somewhat better in other places. It can and does kill fish. No solution is in sight despite attention in the scientific community.

• Dead Zones: Three years ago, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation sponsored a summit on lack of dissolved oxygen and its impact on finfish, crabs and other aquatic creatures as well as fishermen trying to catch them. The problem remains, though changing weather and Bay flooding concealed some of the woes this year.

• Though the oyster season is off to a fairly good start, seasons always start better than they end. And burgeoning cownose ray populations can decimate oysters. Meanwhile, all efforts to market rays as a food source are getting nowhere past the talk stage. Expect populations to increase, increasing oyster damage.

• Lost in the middle of all of this is the scant attention given to global warming, which includes warming of oceans and consequently other waters. Higher waters would inundate not only that proposed development on the Little Blackwater but also much of the Eastern Shore, while changing the entire wetlands system around the globe. And possibly everything else.

Hey, we can go on and on; the list continues to grow. Everywhere we see ominous change while most concern is spent on arguing with fisheries managers about proposed cutbacks on flounder and trophy rockfish catches. I worry about where the citizenry places its priorities. Enough said.

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