More than 600 people attended 13 hearings held along the coast by the interstate commission, and the panel received more than 30,000 written comments, many calling for greater protections.

"All of us who've been on the bay for a number of years can recall in years gone by huge areas of menhaden feeding on the surface of the bay," says Kenneth Lewis, 78, an avid fisherman from Towson. "Nobody has seen that for quite a long time," he said.

Omega's spokesman said the company is prepared to go along with the proposal to increase the menhaden population in the bay and along the coast to 15 percent of historic levels. If that threshold were in effect now, it would require a 23 percent reduction in harvest from last year's catch.

But many recreational anglers, scientists and conservationists are pressing the commission to set a target of preserving up to 40 percent of the spawning stock in any given year — which could lead to a cutback in commercial harvest of 45 percent.

Omega's spokesman calls that idea "reckless and unnecessary," but advocates contend the role of menhaden in feeding other fish and birds demands steeper reductions in the commerical harvest.

The impact of the decline of menhaden on striped bass, or rockfish, is one of the biggest worries, as the fish is treasured by recreational anglers and a valuable commercial catch in the Chesapeake.

Menhaden once made up more than 70 percent of their diet, but now account for about 7 percent. Many stripers caught in the Chesapeake are showing signs of malnutrition, and state biologists estimate that 60 percent have caught a bacterial infection, mycobacteriosis, which causes lesions and wasting in the fish.

Research has suggested the lack of food and illness may be linked.

"Things like lesions can be a function of nutrition," said James Uphoff, a biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Whether the bacterial infection many rockfish have kills them also depends to some degree on whether they can get enough to eat to maintain their strength.

Other species are affected as well, says Goldsborough, the bay foundation biologist.

"With insufficient menhaden … striped bass are feeding on crabs," he said.

Birds also are missing menhaden, observers say. Biologist Spitzer used to see "tremendous flocks" of loons on the Choptank River and in Eastern Bay feeding on menhaden, but not for the past two decades.

Menhaden haven't had a great spawn in the Maryland waters of the Chesapeake for years, data show. While wind and waves appear to have more influence over how many menhaden eggs hatch than does fishing pressure, biologists say reducing the harvest can provide a greater cushion should weather conditions be especially unfavorable one year.

Maryland watermen fear they'll see their financial margin pinched by whatever harvest cutback results from the November meeting. For crabbers, for instance, the only other bait they can use is razor clams, but they cost $35 per bushel, compared with $10 per 50-pound box of menhaden, according to Powley.

Russell Dize, a Tilghman waterman who's also a member of the Atlantic States commission, worries that even if the harvest is reduced menhaden won't bounce back and fishermen in the bay and along the coast will be left with a permanent cutback.

But he said he doesn't see any other choice. Having reviewed the scientists' reports, Dize said, "If they say there is a problem, I believe there's a problem. … It's going to hurt some people. I don't like that, but we've got to act."

Sun reporter Candus Thomson contributed to this story.

tim.wheeler@baltsun.com