Bay species' value beyond just harvest

ON THE BAY

Fishing: Economics is entwined with ecology.

February 18, 2005|By Tom Horton | Tom Horton,SUN STAFF

IN FRUSTRATED e-mail to environmental groups and legal threats against fisheries managers, you see the outrage of Omega Protein, the Houston-based corporation that is the bay's biggest seafood harvester.

Operating from Reedville, Va., where menhaden fishing has been the way of life and economic pillar for generations, Omega's spotter aircraft work with a fleet of vessels to surround great schools of the oily bait fish, netting them by the hundreds of millions of pounds each year.

What Omega's Texas directors need to grasp, if they plan to remain viable here, is that their industry is enmeshed inexorably in a larger movement that is changing the way we manage nature in general and marine life in particular.

Recently I had occasion to look back at changes regarding the bay that have occurred in the past decade. A profound one was recognition that so many bay species have multiple values to us, with the indirect ones often more valuable than those from their harvest.

Horseshoe crabs, long targeted for the bait market and once caught for fertilizer, also support hemispheric migrations of shore birds arriving in the Mid-Atlantic each spring.

Famished and utterly dependent for refueling on crab eggs from the beaches where the horseshoes spawn, the birds - and bird-watchers - have played a key role in restricting commercial harvests.

Oysters, once prized mainly for their commercial value in stews and on the half shell, are now widely recognized as essential filters of the bay - their management increasingly linked as much to restoring water quality as to maintaining watermen.

Forests, whose value has been framed more by timber revenues and recreational benefits, turn out to absorb hundreds of millions of pounds of pollution that otherwise would run off into the bay.

Indeed, you're beginning to hear serious talk of managing our national forests less for wood than for "ecosystem services," including clean air and clean water. New York City recently decided it was cheaper to preserve huge forests upstate than to treat polluted drinking water if they were developed.

And just so with the menhaden, previously valued for conversion to animal feed, oils and heart-healthy fatty acids, all of which Omega produces at its Reedville facility.

A grazer of the algae that now overwhelms bay water quality, menhaden are increasingly held up as an aid to clean water; also as a vital forage base for striped bass, loons, pelicans, osprey and other bay wildlife.

You can see how Omega is stuck in time by its often-expressed view that increased numbers of striped bass, restored to the bay in recent years, may be a "problem" in the bay's menhaden decline of the past decade.

In fact it is not a problem, rather a good thing, that there are more stripers. And they, along with the birds and the bay's water quality, all deserve their share of the menhaden's ecosystem services.

To that end, Maryland and other coastal states voted 12-3 this week to consider capping Omega's bay harvests around current levels. A lobbying effort by sports fishermen and environmentalists was mounted to persuade Gov. Robert L. Ehrlich Jr. to take a stand in support of the limits.

The vote came at a session of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a federally chartered body that sets fishing policies from Maine to Florida. It means there's a good chance the commission will adopt the harvest cap in August.

Omega and Virginia will no doubt fight it, though they've said they have no plans to increase menhaden harvests. What they should do is make their peace with the inevitable and work with the commission to figure out just why there haven't been as many menhaden in the bay in the past decade.

The scientific picture is not a simple one. Coastwide the species, which spawns in the coastal oceans, appears not to be overfished - though that picture might change with more study.

However, for reasons that aren't well understood, the numbers of young menhaden making their way into the bay have fallen off sharply - and there's evidence this is contributing to undernourishment of stripers.

As Goldsborough points out, "while you sort out the cause of [the bay downturn], you don't just sit around and do nothing. You manage the resource conservatively." The cap Maryland supported this week is modest enough given the lack of young menhaden here. The science and the votes just weren't there to go further.

Omega is in the path of a movement toward more enlightened natural resources management that won't be stopped. I'm not suggesting they just acquiesce, rather that they stop acting like cowboys and recognize that the human economy and nature's economy are linked in many ways.

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