The fish that might get away

July 20, 2005

EVER EATEN an Atlantic menhaden? You haven't missed much. Oily, small and bony, the fish isn't restaurant material. But to predator fish such as striped bass and bluefish, a school of menhaden is a movable four-star feast. That makes menhaden one of the most important species found in the Chesapeake Bay - in essence, the little fish that feed the big fish. That's just one of the reasons why Virginia shouldn't continue to allow an unlimited menhaden harvest.

The numbers involved are staggering. A fleet of ships dispatched by Omega Protein Corp.'s plant in Reedville, Va., nets an average of 100,000 metric tons of menhaden from the mouth of the bay each year. Biologists say that amounts to about a billion fish. The harvest technique is ruthlessly efficient. Airplanes are deployed to spot the acres-spanning, densely packed menhaden schools. Chase boats circle the fish until a mother ship can arrive to pull a purse net tight and vacuum up the contents.

That makes the menhaden fishery one of the nation's largest. Most of the catch is turned into fertilizer and feed and, lately, health food supplements (consumers know it as Omega-3 fish oil).

Some experts doubt Atlantic Ocean stocks can handle such plunder, but the effects on the Chesapeake Bay are even more dire. In Maryland, scientists are convinced that a huge number of the menhaden are intercepted by Omega's harvesting before they can migrate into the Chesapeake. That has implications not only for species such as striped bass, but for the bay's health in general - hungry menhaden can cleanse the bay of excess organic material simply by foraging.

But officials in Virginia don't want to restrict the industry for fear that it will mean the loss of Omega's 250 jobs in Reedville. Some environmental groups, most notably Greenpeace, would like to see a moratorium on all menhaden fishing. Officials at Maryland's Department of Natural Resources have proposed something more modest that would have no effect on jobs - cap Omega's catch to the average of the last five years.

The DNR plan is a reasonable compromise, and we urge members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the deliberative body that governs Atlantic coastal fisheries, to endorse it at their meeting next month. It's a first step toward managing the species in a sensible way and ensuring that scientists have the opportunity to study this important resource - and its role in the overall ecosystem - before more desperate actions are required.

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