Water out of fish

October 23, 2007

Acurrent events quiz for the dinner table: What elected Republican last week offered important legislation to ensure the future of Chesapeake Bay rockfish? If you said President Bush, who visited St. Michael's on Saturday for little more than a photo-op and a crab cake, you'd be wrong. The correct answer is Maryland's own Rep. Wayne T. Gilchrest, one of his party's most enlightened voices on the environment, who with far less fanfare proposed banning commercial harvesting of Atlantic menhaden in coastal waters.

Menhaden are a crucial species in the ecosystem. Not only are they a main source of food for striped bass (aka rockfish) - and many other species of fish - they are also particularly vital to a healthy marine ecology. As the East Coast's major herbivorous fish, menhaden consume an enormous amount of plankton and help prevent algae blooms and "dead zones" in the water.

But a fleet of ships and airplane spotters dispatched from one company, Omega Protein Corp. in Reedville, Va., are sucking up billions of the small, oily menhaden from the lower Chesapeake each year. The fish wind up processed into the components of fertilizer, health food supplements and paint.

Scientists fear the consequences of this ruthless efficiency. While striped bass remain relatively numerous in the Chesapeake, they are clearly under stress. Most now carry the disease mycobacteriosis, and the loss of the nutritionally valuable menhaden from their diet is a likely factor.

Virginia Gov. Tim Kaine has taken the modest step of capping that state's menhaden catch, but much more needs to be done - and soon. Mr. Gilchrest's proposal would at least signal the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to recommend, if not a moratorium, at least a reduction in Omega's unbridled exploitation. That would improve the outlook not only for the humble menhaden but for rockfish and Chesapeake Bay water quality as well.

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