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Save the Chesapeake Bay’s most vital fish (and no, it’s not striped bass)

This Oct. 15, 2004 file photo shows a school of Menhaden on the coast of Virginia Beach, Va. Fishing regulators say a Canadian-owned company that makes fish-oil supplements went well beyond catch limits set for the Chesapeake Bay.
This Oct. 15, 2004 file photo shows a school of Menhaden on the coast of Virginia Beach, Va. Fishing regulators say a Canadian-owned company that makes fish-oil supplements went well beyond catch limits set for the Chesapeake Bay. (Stephen M. Katz/AP)

Last week, Gov. Larry Hogan was one of nine governors to sign a letter urging the Trump administration to take action against a Reedville, Virginia-base company that, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, has harvested 30% more Atlantic menhaden from the Chesapeake Bay than allowed under interstate rules. The governors want more than some fine or scolding; they want a moratorium placed on Omega Protein to protect the fish so their numbers can rebound. We support that effort and hope that Commerce Secretary Wilbur Ross will impose just such relief as soon as possible. Why? Because while the silvery menhaden might not be the object of any sport fisherman’s attention or a prized delicacy for the restaurant dinner plate, it plays a vital role in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.

That’s because the relatively small and notably oily fish may not tempt humans but it’s the equivalent of prime rib with a dorsal fin to other fish species, most notably striped bass (more commonly known as rockfish) and bluefish, two species that are prized by the rod-and-reel crowd and chefs. And the impact of menhaden is really much greater than that. They eat phytoplankton and zooplankton (of which there are sometimes too much) and, in turn, provide food for bald eagles and osprey (of which there are too little). You could scarcely identify a more important component of the bay food chain. But then here’s the rub: They are lucrative for humans, too.

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While menhaden may not make the cover of Gourmet, they do deserve a spot on Health magazine. They are a major source of omega-3 fatty acids, useful to combat heart disease and possibly other maladies such as Alzheimer’s. They are also ground into animal feed. Omega turns tens of thousands of tons of menhaden caught along the East Coast into fish meal and fish oil. And business is very good. It’s why Atlantic menhaden and not striped bass or tuna or cod is the most lucrative East Coast fin fish. Virginia’s landings alone in 2016 totaled 323,146,229 pounds or 38 pounds for every man, woman and child living in that state.

Technically, menhaden are not considered to be overfished by the ASMFC which nevertheless approved a 41% cut in the catch limit in the Chesapeake two years ago as a precaution against that possibility. Local menhaden fishermen protested that decision and so have certain lawmakers in Virginia who supported Omega’s pillaging in the past. But times are changing. Maryland’s governor wasn’t the only local signature on last week’s protest to Secretary Ross, so was Virginia Gov. Ralph Northam’s. Perhaps it’s a sign of Virginia’s increasingly Democratic leanings. Or it could be the fact that Omega is now owned by a foreign company, Canada’s Cooke Aquaculture. But we suspect it was for a more obvious reason — to protect the Chesapeake Bay.

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No moratorium is pain-free, of course. There are adverse economic consequences and, unfortunately, they will extend to fishermen as well as individuals who process the fish, neither of whom had anything to do with Omega’s decision to exceed harvest limits. But that isn’t the federal government’s fault. Company officials should have known better. But in their arrogance (the company claims bad weather prevented them from catching fish further off-shore), they chose to catch not a few pounds more from the bay, not a few tons more, but thousands of tons more than the commission had endorsed. That’s no accounting error, it was a deliberate effort to circumvent federal rules and that must have consequences.

We might be forgiving of Omega if we thought the company wouldn’t be inclined to do it again. Or if the Chesapeake Bay’s seafood industry was in stronger shape. But, alas, the latest signs have not been encouraging. While blue crabs seem to be in healthy number, oysters and rockfish are not. Omega can’t be allowed to continue to jeopardize menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay — or all those other species in the bay and elsewhere along the East Coast that depend on them.

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