For big fish, it's a small world

Menhaden vital to stripers' food chain

May 09, 2010|By Candus Thomson, The Baltimore Sun

Alexandria, Va. — Sitting in a ballroom with not a hint of sunlight slipping through the thick curtains as biologists and bureaucrats chatter endlessly about fecundity and fish mortality makes it hard to remember the connection between science and fish.

Then someone e-mails a photo to you and it all makes sense and you want to run to the front of the room hollering: "Do something. Do it now."

It's time to make things right for the fish and ensure that kids who build reef balls for the Chesapeake Bay today will have something tugging at their lines someday that will make them grin and make their hearts pound and produce a snapshot they'll cherish until they're old.

Something like the feeling Kevin Howell had last weekend.

But we're not going to get there by having the executive director of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which is charged with protecting menhaden, making promotional videos for the very industry he is supposed to be watching. Or having the leadership of the ASMFC that approved the appearance find nothing even remotely wrong with it.

More about that in a moment.

The e-mailed photo that set me off shows Howell of Edgewater, the winner of the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association spring striped bass tournament, and his catch. I have to admit that even after viewing the photo numerous times, I still couldn't pick Kevin out of a police lineup. That's what the sight of a 52.55-pound striped bass will do to you.

The 27th annual Championship on the Chesapeake attracted 580 boats holding about 4,000 anglers for the three-day tournament that ended last Sunday.

Howell said he caught the monster fish on a 9-inch white shad in 55 feet of water, just south of the CR buoy. In addition to a lifetime of bragging rights, he pocketed $21,750.

The money is nice, especially with the price of fuel being what it is. But the promise of catching big fish now, for our lifetime and for generations to come is the priceless opportunity that should drive us.

And that means taking care of the little fish that feed the big fish and filter algae-clogged water. That means protecting the menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay and up and down the Eastern Seaboard.

After nine years of nothing, the ASMFC took the first step in protecting menhaden from commercial overfishing. The commission unanimously voted Wednesday to have its scientists come up with new biological benchmarks by August that would allow the stock to grow.

Folks who whine that DNR stands for Do Nothing Right weren't watching the tireless work by Maryland Department of Natural Resources biologists on this one. Fisheries Service Director Tom O'Connell and Lynn Fegley and Alexei Sharov left no stone unturned in convincing representatives from the 16 other states that it was time to act. Up the ladder, Secretary John Griffin and Gov. Martin O'Malley made menhaden a top priority here and let leaders in other states know it.

Griffin said he "absolutely" will keep the pressure on to get the new benchmarks developed and in place.

The question is whether states with biologists working on the stock assessment and scientists from the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science will fast-track the menhaden work to meet the August deadline.

Between now and then, however, the ASMFC has some ethical homework to do if it wants to be taken seriously.

Imagine this scenario: The night before the start of the World Series, you look at the New York Yankees website and see a promotional video that includes the chief of the umpire crew. Outrageous, yes?

But there is John "Vince" O'Shea, ASMFC's executive director, in a slick video for Omega Protein, the only commercial menhaden fleet in the Chesapeake Bay and the subject of all this regulatory attention. In it Vince O'Shea says (among other things): "Our commission, and I believe Omega Protein, share the common long-term goal of managing a menhaden resource that is healthy, abundant and sustainable."

Really? This would be the fish that has been overfished in 32 of the past 53 years, including three, if not four, of the past 10years. The fish that is at an all-time low abundance. A fish that is being hammered by trawlers during its best reproductive years. And an industry that insists during the very same video that "the menhaden population is healthy and Omega Protein is working to keep it that way."

Robert Boyles Jr., vice chairman of ASMFC last year, who with Chairman George LaPointe gave permission for O'Shea to appear, called the video "a good opportunity to tell the story about the process of menhaden management. … Does it look bad? It's in the eye of the beholder."

When I asked him if the video came out the way he envisioned, Boyles, deputy director for marine resources with the South Carolina DNR, said: "There's nothing in the video that's factually erroneous."

Judge it for yourself on our website, at baltimoresun.com/outdoors.

And then send your critique to

comments@asmfc.org.

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