In the Bay: little fish and a growing problem

Menhaden, a silvery little relative of herring, are much more likely to be bait on a hook than food on a fork. The species cleans the water by vacuuming up all manner of plankton, provides prey for all kinds of bigger fish, but to humans it is mainly a product.

In the Chesapeake Bay, the center of the menhaden commercial fishery, the creatures are caught in vast numbers. The fish are processed into meal for high-protein animal feed, and into oil for additives and dietary supplements.

It’s an industry that brings millions of dollars and hundreds of jobs to Virginia. It’s an industry that depends on a vigorous fishery. And it’s an industry under threat. The fish, which was so plentiful in Colonial times that schools were mistaken for islands, is becoming scarcer in the Chesapeake. That fact, apparently, is not in particular dispute, though it does appear to be where agreement ends.

The Menhaden Resource Council – a pro-industry group – says that menhaden stocks are being threatened by the new abundance of striped bass in the Bay.

That may be a factor in the menhaden decline, said a new environmental coalition called Menhaden Matters, but voracious rockfish are hardly the only problem. The larger concern, the group said in a recent report, is overfishing by industry.

The menhaden industry’s response to the alarm is a call for more fishing of striped bass, and for more study of the problem.

If that sounds familiar, it should.

When their industries were threatened with limits, other Chesapeake watermen demanded scientific proof that their species were endangered. Those demands successfully delayed limits on crabbing, oystering, even fishing for stripers, until the Bay’s populations of each of those species crashed.

The menhaden isn’t endangered. The fish is apparently still plentiful up and down the Atlantic Coast. But the species’ decline in the Chesapeake may well be another symptom that something is dangerously out of whack in the Bay’s ecosystem.

The Bay no doubt needs more science. Study of the complex relationship between the Chesapeake’s species may eventually reveal the source of its many problems.

But we shouldn’t wait until we have all the answers to act. By then it’ll be too late.

If the menhaden population is under pressure in the Bay, as it appears to be, then it makes sense to protect it. That may take the form of limits on industrial menhaden fishing, lifting limits on striper catches or some combination of either or both. In the collapse of the striper population, in the depletion of oyster beds, in the decline of the crabbing industry, the Chesapeake region has already received a taste of what happens when Virginia regulators do little to protect a species. It took decades for the striper population to recover; oysters are so absent that water quality has been affected; crab harvests have been at historic lows.

The time has come for state regulators to show us that those past mistakes have actually taught them something.