December 5, 2004
An oily, bony, little fish, menhaden isn't likely to end up on your table. But it might be in the feed that fattened that meat on your plate, or the cat's food, or the Omega-3 fish oil capsules health-conscious folks are popping. Why should you care about menhaden? Because it is one of the most crucial species in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, and it's in trouble. It needs protection - but with deft decision-making that takes into account the complex ecological and economic web of which it is a part, and the web of interests that will be affected.
Menhaden has two critical functions to which fisheries regulators must be sensitive.
One is economic. Menhaden sustains a big, profitable industry dominated, in Virginia, by Houston-based powerhouse Omega Protein. Its processing plant in Reedsville is one of the Northern Neck's key employers.
The other is environmental. Menhaden are scaly, finned Chesapeake-Bay-cleaning machines. Algae-eating menhaden are on the front line of defense against the massive algae blooms, fueled by nitrogen pollution, that rob the bay of life-sustaining oxygen. With most of the filtering capacity of oysters lost, menhaden are more important than ever.
Menhaden are also a linchpin in the food chain, a primary food of predator fish such as striped bass (rockfish) and bluefish as well as osprey, loons and marine mammals.
But some scientists are worried about this vital cog in the ecosystem, and particularly about the population of young fish in the bay, which is prime nursery grounds. Problems here, if left unchecked, could have widespread consequences: robbing the bay of menhaden's beneficial effect on water quality, depriving the larger Atlantic coast population of young, and reducing the food supply of predators.
The reasons menhaden are in trouble can be debated. Climate may play a part, or pollution, or the success of efforts to protect striped bass, creating a population that has outstripped its food supply (which may help explain why striped bass have become smaller, thinner and sickly).
Or overfishing - 300 million pounds of menhaden were landed in Virginia in 2002. When other Atlantic coast states clamped down on industrial menhaden fishing, it concentrated the harvest in Virginia waters. Nearly three-fourths of the East Coast catch is taken in Virginia's portion of the bay and adjoining waters. With demand for its heart-healthy oil booming, fishing pressure isn't likely to slack off.
While the causes of menhaden's troubles can be debated, the need for action can't. Since we can't control climate, and reversing pollution is a long-term undertaking, the only reasonable response is to manage what we can: the catch.
It is inconceivable that there are no limits on the size of the harvest of this important species. Says Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation: "We no longer have the luxury of conducting an industrial scale fishery with no catch limits on an ecologically critical species in the Chesapeake Bay." The 15-state regulatory body that oversees Atlantic Coast commercial fisheries is in the thick of studying the problem and could decide to use its authority to impose limits. That would force Virginia to act. Or Virginia can act on its own.
There is no guarantee that catch restrictions will be the fix menhaden need, since the industry doesn't target young fish. But conservationists' argument is logical: Better to take the common-sense step, which cannot harm the menhaden population and could benefit it, than pass up the chance to protect a critical species. It only makes sense to manage a vital resource. For object lessons on the consequences of failing to prevent over-harvesting of species in trouble, Virginia need look no further than two other icons of Virginia marine life: oysters and blue crabs.
The first step is to assign responsibility for menhaden to professional fisheries managers. The General Assembly should bring this critical marine resource under the oversight of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission - and give it the money to do the research and the work. It must correct the mistake it made in the last session when it killed a bill directing the VMRC to develop a plan for managing menhaden fishing in Virginia.
The first job for fisheries managers will be to take a hard look at the case for interim catch restrictions. Designing them will require delicacy in balancing competing needs: of industry and sport fishermen, of the fishery that catches menhaden for processing and the smaller but significant industry that catches it for bait. It will require tackling questions about how striped bass figure in and whether catch limits on predators should be eased. And exploring how decisions about Virginia will affect the larger coast-wise population. It all points to the need to consider menhaden as part of an ecosystem, an approach that is compelling in theory but messy and complex in practice.
Given menhaden's critical role in the food chain and water quality, environmental concerns must take precedence. While economics is always a consideration, it is secondary - a fact some legislators might forget given the $32,000 in political contributions Omega Protein has spread around in Virginia.
The important thing is to be proactive - not wait until the tipping point is passed. While disciplined research is vital, ultimately science can only provide guidelines, but cannot point toward a clear, unambiguous answer. Research must go on - and be better funded - but, says Goldsborough, "We don't have time to wait." Interim catch limits make sense while science goes ahead.
Careful management of menhaden is, in the long run, the only way to protect this critical marine resource and its contribution to the health of the bay and the state's economy. n
If menhaden fishing evokes a misty image of ruggedly independent watermen singing chanteys while hauling in nets, think again. Planes spot schools of menhaden, and a few large ships literally vacuum up giant catches.
This is big business, and in regulating it, Virginia will face off with a deep-pocketed corporation experienced in the rough and tumble.
The vast majority of Virginia's catch is in the holds of a single company, Omega Protein.
The majority owner of Omega Protein is Zapata, the oil (petroleum, not fish) firm founded by George Herbert Walker Bush.
Today Zapata and Omega Protein are controlled by another powerful clan, headed by Palm Beach billionaire Malcolm Glazer. Son Avram Glazer is chairman of both Omega Protein and Zapata. The patriarch owns, in addition to a real estate empire, football's Tampa Bay Buccaneers, and has tried to acquire the Los Angeles Dodgers, Harley-Davidson, rail giant Conrail - and, most recently, British soccer legends Manchester United.
Omega isn't always an ideal neighbor: Two years ago, the state Department of Environmental Quality fined it for violating clean-water regulations.