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Roughly Speaking Dan Rodricks: Commentary and conversation on life in Baltimore, Maryland and the USA

Chasing gulls chasing the Chesapeake Bay anchovy

In praise of the bay anchovy, a delicacy favored by the laughing gulls

Maryland scientists who each year grade the Chesapeake Bay’s health gave the nation’s largest estuary a C for 2015 – one of its highest scores over the last 30 years – and judging from my four-hour study the other morning the patient continues to improve.

I was aboard a recreational fishing boat in the Little Choptank River, near its mouth, not far from slow-sinking James Island. We chased flocks of birds feeding on schools of bay anchovy. The birds attacked from the sky, rockfish attacked from beneath. It was an amazing sight.

I concede that my slice of bay life was, in terms of time and space, pretty narrow, and based solely on observations. I leave the real research to experts at the University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science. They’re the scientists best qualified to grade the bay. They found that water clarity and underwater grasses increased over the past year, while levels of nitrogen and phosphorous pollution fell -- thus the C grade, up from perennial Ds for most of the years they’ve been watching the bay’s health.

Certainly over my time in the region, with my first fishing trip in the late 1970s, most of the news about the Chesapeake has been bad. Up and down, but mostly down.

So, this past year, when I started to hear about clarity improving, without a drought and lots of polluted runoff to explain it, I thought maybe things are really getting better. Prudent management -- the regulatory responsibility of government informed by science  -- ultimately can get us better outcomes, even as the region’s human population continues to grow.

At this juncture, I would like to praise the bay anchovy.

Attention must be paid to this small, almost translucent bait fish. It provides scientists with an important measure for grading the bay.

The anchovy is one of the most abundant schooling fishes in the Chesapeake, a foundational food for big predators, such as rockfish and bluefish, and birds, especially as winter approaches.

The University of Maryland’s current chart on bay anchovy looks superb, with their numbers rising to levels not seen since the 1980s and early 1990s. In addition – and most likely related – the rockfish numbers appear to have rebounded since 2010. The blue crab population, meanwhile, is estimated to be at one of its highest points of the past two decades.

So, taken together, the overall improvement of those three species contributed to the bay’s C grade.

It’s one thing to read about numbers and look at charts, quite another to see bay health with your own eyes.

If you were standing with me Friday morning on the sunrise run to the Little Choptank, watching for birds, you would have been tempted to declare the Chesapeake’s health robust.

From about 7 am until about 11 am, I saw squadrons of gulls, along with a few pelicans, constantly feeding on schools of bay anchovies. We moved the boat to a dozen locations, following the birds as they laughed and squawked and splashed into the choppy water, scooping up anchovies and swallowing them almost immediately. It was a memorable tableau, repeated over and over throughout the morning.

From beneath, the rockfish attacked the schools of anchovies, too. Some broke the surface as they filled their mouths with food.

I’ve seen this show before, though not over as large an area and not with as many birds. Back in the 1990s, I caught bluefish that had just gorged themselves on anchovies, so much so that they were spilling out of their mouths as the bluefish came to the net.

Bill Goldsborough, senior fisheries scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, saw a similar scene a couple of weeks ago during a fishing trip just south of where we were on Friday morning. “They were [after] anchovies,” he said. “We cast and trolled the area for a while and caught several small rockfish and bluefish, some of which spit up anchovies.”

We had the same results, minus the bluefish, in the Little Choptank.

I must admit that, while making plenty of casts and catching plenty of stripers, I spent almost an equal amount of time watching the birds, and listening to their excited squawk and laughter as they chased their breakfast.

Meanwhile, a question about another source of fish and bird forage, the Atlantic menhaden, lingers over the Chesapeake and those who manage the resource. Menhaden have been under tremendous pressure over the last two decades. They are harvested and processed for use in animal feed and health supplements. Chesapeake watermen catch them mainly as bait.

When I showed him video of my Friday trip, Goldsborough did not see gulls taking menhaden, an action that usually comes in a splashy attack, with the bird carrying its prey away, instead of swallowing it on the spot.

Still, on a coastal basis, considerable progress has been made with commercial catch limits on menhaden. The limits were put in place starting in 2013.

“A conservation group we work with estimated we saved about 300 million menhaden annually the first two years,” Goldsborough says. “So we are probably in the neighborhood of having left a total of a billion menhaden in the water to serve their ecological role over the four years.”

But the menhaden’s presence in the bay has been greatly diminished, Goldsborough says. “The most important size for fish to eat are the juvenile fish spawned early each year in the ocean that migrate into the bay and spend about six months here growing up to about six inches before leaving,” he says. “This is the size you would probably see if birds and fish had them cornered in feeding mode at the surface. I don’t see them in your video.”

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