- The Washington Times - Saturday, June 25, 2005

Menhaden are the Rodney Dangerfields of the Chesapeake Bay — these small, bony fish get no respect. Menhaden are essential to the health of Chesapeake Bay, North America’s biggest estuary and the world’s third-largest.

As principal filter feeders of the bay’s waters — second only to oysters, which are already grossly depleted — menhaden feed on plankton and decaying plant matter.

Menhaden are also the primary source of food for many popular sport and commercial fish, including striped bass, which spawn in the bay and rely on juvenile menhaden for the bulk of their diet. They are also a source of nutrient rich oil, and are scooped up by the ton and primarily pressed for fertilizer, heart-healthy Omega 3 tablets and dog food.

A single Houston-based company, Omega Protein, which operates a newly enhanced fish processing facility in Reedville, Virginia, harvests 90 percent of the industrial menhaden catch on the East Coast, with most coming from the Chesapeake Bay. The company has vigorously opposed catch limits on its operations, which uses spotter planes and big nets to scoop up the fish, despite the fact that a cap at the current level would not affect the supply.

The unlimited harvest of menhaden is having a significant impact. The overall number of Atlantic menhaden is near historic lows, and predators like striped bass that depend on menhaden as a food source are showing signs of ecological stress, malnutrition and poor body condition.

As important as these fish are to the Chesapeake Bay, harvests have not been limited to ensure healthy levels are maintained. This is distressing, considering all other commercial and recreational fishermen have accepted conservation measures to ensure their activities don’t hurt the Bay.

Virginia is one of two states (the other is a smaller fishery in North Carolina) along the Atlantic Coast that allows industrialized menhaden fishing. It was banned in Maryland and Delaware, yet remains in the control of the Virginia legislature — rather than the Virginia Marine Resources Commission.

But it looks as if the tide might be turning in favor of these underappreciated little fish.

This month, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the 15-member interstate body responsible for managing the stock, begins public hearings from Maine through Georgia on an addendum to cap the industrial menhaden harvest in the Bay. The June 29 Maryland hearing and the July 12-13 Virginia hearings are of particular concern, since these states are stewards of Chesapeake Bay.

The ASMFC also decided in May to initiate a research program to determine exactly how many menhaden are in the Bay, and whether the industrial harvest impairs the ecological role of this fish. Proactive management such as this is exactly what’s needed to protect menhaden, its predators and the Bay.

It is critical these proposals are acted on in the coming months before another industrial fishing season is lost. We look to Gov. Robert Ehrlich and Gov. Mark Warner to lead on this issue.

Menhaden matter to anglers, watermen, conservationists, sea birds, striped bass and the Chesapeake. Given their regional importance, the actions by the ASMFC and thousands of public comments of support pouring in are huge first steps in getting them the respect they deserve.


Mr. Festa lives in Virginia and is the Oceans Program director at Environmental Defense.

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