Gilchrest: Menhaden restrictions crucial to Chesapeake ecosystem

Few experiences compare to boating in the Chesapeake Bay at dawn, gliding among blue herons and submerged oak trees. As a nature lover and conservationist, I often take young students to the Chesapeake to teach them about ocean ecology.

Lately, these nascent outdoorsmen have been noticing disturbances in the complex chain of marine life that sustains the ocean and its estuaries. An alarming 70 percent of adult striped bass sampled in the Chesapeake Bay are infected with a serious condition called mycobacteriosis, and these ailing fish are migrating from their nursery in the bay all along the Atlantic Coast. What's wrong with the striped bass?

It turns out that the disease afflicting these magnificent predators is likely linked to the loss of a forage fish called the Atlantic menhaden.

The small, oily menhaden is known as "the most important fish in the sea" because it forms the basis of the Atlantic marine food chain. You will not see menhaden at your grocery store, but it is present in the flesh of dozens of fish species that we catch and eat.

Many highly prized fish, including striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, Atlantic tuna, cod, haddock, halibut and redfish, as well as marine mammals, sea turtles, ospreys and loons, depend on menhaden.

Menhaden used to account for up to 70 percent of the prey consumed by adult striped bass. But a recent survey by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science shows that menhaden now constitute as little as 8 percent of the striper diet.

Other studies reveal that menhaden made up nearly three-quarters of the osprey diet in the 1980s; today it's 28 percent. The survival rate of osprey nestlings in the region is as poor as it was when the use of the deadly pesticide DDT was widespread in the 1950s.

Industrial overfishing is threatening the entire menhaden population and the many species that depend on it. For the past decade, a company called Omega Protein has been grinding up nearly half a billion pounds of menhaden each year out of its plant in Reedville, Va., for use in pet food, fish meal and fish oil supplements.

As a result, menhaden abundance has declined by 88 percent in the last 25 years, to a historic low. Given the vital ecological role that menhaden plays, this is akin to a farmer who wakes up to discover that 88 percent of his soil is gone.

During my years in Congress serving on the House Subcommittee for Fisheries, Wildlife, and Oceans, the national effort was to apply an "ecosystem approach" to managing fisheries. We supervised the diversity of ocean life by taking into account the physical, biological and human components of the ecosystem, with attention to how these components are interconnected.

In addition to their importance as a food source, menhaden perform crucial filtering functions. They act as natural filters for the ocean ecosystem, removing particles that contribute to pollution in the water. This particle feeding clarifies the water and helps prevent devastating low-oxygen "dead zones," much like the ones that have plagued the Chesapeake Bay and Long Island Sound.

Each adult menhaden can filter an estimated four gallons of water per minute. Imagine what the menhaden population could do if restored to its unexploited levels — millions of fish would be vacuuming up damaging particles that have poured into our estuaries from industrial runoff, over-fertilized fields and wastewater.

In short, the menhaden is a valuable public resource. But it hasn't been treated like one. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the regulatory body that manages marine species along the Atlantic Coast, has neglected to take substantive action to protect the menhaden for nearly a decade.

On Tuesday, the ASMFC will be holding a public meeting in Alexandria, Va., to make an important decision regarding the future of the ocean. Commission members will be voting on whether to implement rebuilding targets, markers that indicate how many menhaden must be left in the ocean in order to increase their potential to spawn.

This is the first of several steps toward changing the way the menhaden fishery is managed. Whether the ASMFC takes those steps in the coming months will affect fisherman, farmers and families — everyone whose life is touched by the vast Atlantic and its threatened bounty.

The menhaden is a fish with two different jobs that preserve coastal ecology. Unrestrained industrial menhaden fishing is simply no longer an option for our ecosystem or our economy.

It's time the Atlantic Marine States Fisheries Commission took a stand to save the fish and secure its future — and ours. Let's put the menhaden back in business.

Former Congressman Wayne T. Gilchrest, a Republican, represented Maryland's First District from 1991 to 2009. His e-mail is

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