Wait-and-see stance is leaving bay's menhaden in deep water


February 06, 2005|By CANDUS THOMSON

LET'S SAY YOU come out to your car every morning and find the gas gauge is lower than when you parked the night before.

Your mechanic says there's nothing wrong with the gauge and no holes in the fuel system.

But just as sure as the sun comes up over Ocean City and sets over Deep Creek Lake, every morning that needle is closer to "empty." Do you:

a) Clean the garage clutter and put the car inside at night.

b) Check the police blotter in the newspaper to see if others are reporting gasoline thefts.

c) Get a locking gas cap.

d) Put duct tape over the gauge so you don't have to look at it anymore.

Smart folks most likely would choose one or more of the first three. Lesser lights would probably select "d," assuming they knew what duct tape is.

Unfortunately, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is firmly in the "d" category when it comes to addressing the depleted population of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay.

The oily, silver-sided fish filter bay water and act as food for bigger fish, especially striped bass. One could argue that they are as important as oysters and bay grass. In fact, most Eastern Seaboard states (except Virginia and North Carolina) have acknowledged their vital role by banning industrial harvesting.

But in the eyes of a Houston-based corporation, menhaden is a cash crop ripe for the picking. Trawlers guided by spotter planes scoop up the fish and deposit them at a plant in Reedsville, Va., owned by Omega Protein that grinds them up for cattle feed, cat food and Omega-3 fish oil tablets for the heart-healthy public.

While the commission acknowledges there's something wrong, its remedy so far has been to cover the ugly truth with duct tape.

That could -- and should -- change this week when the regulatory commission has its winter meeting in Alexandria, Va., to discuss the state of menhaden and other species.

Maryland fisheries managers are in the position to make something happen. If they don't, every recreational angler should demand new leadership at the Department of Natural Resources.

It's puzzling that the Ehrlich administration seems more interested in putting Asian oysters, a non-native critter, in the bay than protecting a species that is already here.

A group of scientists and conservationists wants the 15-state commission to impose a temporary cap on the industrial harvesting of fish along the East Coast and in the bay.

The group, Menhaden Matter, says a limit based on the most recent five-year average harvest would suffice. That would mean 177,797 metric tons coastwide, with 60 percent of the total coming from the bay.

"We want DNR to step up to the plate and do what is reasonable and beneficial for the fishery," said Sherman Baynard, a longtime Chesapeake Bay activist and a founding member of Menhaden Matter.

Baynard notes that in 2003, menhaden trawlers removed more than 100,000 metric tons from the bay, enough to feed the Chesapeake Bay striped bass population for two years.

Last fall, the commission held a workshop that attracted more than two dozen scientists to discuss the menhaden problem and issue a report. By prior agreement, the scientists said they would not include in the report anything that did not have unanimous support.

Given the potential for harm to both stripers and the bay, the consensus report concluded there was reason to be alarmed about the shrinking population. Further, it called for more research into the possible link between striped-bass disease and the menhaden's decline.

Not surprisingly, Omega Protein's publicity machine wasted no time in distorting the outcome. In a letter to the Hampton (Va.) Daily Press, industry mouthpiece Niels Moore insisted that "these Ph.D.-level scientists concluded that no additional immediate regulations are necessary to properly regulate the menhaden fishery."

Whoa. There's a big difference between not getting 27 scientists to agree and saying nothing needs to be done.

Moore further claimed that the commission is turning a blind eye to the real evil-doers in this pending ecological disaster.

"Clearly, predation by the highly abundant striped bass is a far greater source of mortality to the menhaden population than commercial harvests," Moore wrote.

Yes, those murderous stripers greedily eating into Omega Protein's profits. How dare they feed themselves. What gall they show in using the upper bay as their spawning ground. Killing's too good for them.

Omega Protein might be able to roll Virginia lawmakers, who refuse to regulate the menhaden fishery. And it might be able to bully the commission into its "duct-and-cover" attitude.

Indeed, the commission says the overall menhaden population is in fine shape and refers to the condition in the bay as "localized depletion," which makes it sound like one car in a neighborhood being siphoned for gas.

However, nearly three fourths of the East Coast catch comes out of the Chesapeake Bay, which is more like sucking dry every gas tank between Baltimore and Washington. Localized, my eye.

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