Brevoortia tyrannus, aka the Atlantic menhaden, is the topic of the hour as regulators finalize harvest cuts, scientists push for better management, watermen scratch out a living . . . and rockfish and ospreys hunt for dinner. 

by Michael W. Fincham
photos by Michael W. Fincham and

Today the menhaden are running and Hush Puppy is running after them. The guy up in the spotter plane is reporting fish, and Fred Rogers starts working the binoculars, looking for ospreys. Like spotter pilots, ospreys are expert at spying fish in the water--so expert they're also known as fish hawks. An adult osprey is a master fish hunter: it can slap the water like a skipping stone, snatching a small fish from the surface, or it can splash down and sink its talons into a bigger fish gliding lower in the water.

Atlantic menhaden, Brevoortia tyrannus, are not large fish, but they travel in enormous schools, making them easy to spot from the air. From a few thousand feet up, a tight bunch of menhaden can look like a clump of dark green broccoli just below the surface. An entire school, numbering in the millions, can stretch out and bend and curve like a strand of wet spinach waving in the water. To birds wheeling above, and to rockfish and bluefish and other predators swimming up from below, these masses of menhaden look like lunch.

To Fred Rogers, captain of Hush Puppy, an 80-foot steel-hulled "snapper rig," they may not look like lunch, but they'll certainly pay the grocery bill. The same goes for the four other snapper rigs that chase menhaden in the middle Bay. Rogers's biggest competition, however, comes from 10 industrial fishing boats, most of them twice the size of Hush Puppy and all of them owned by a company called Omega Protein. Headquartered in Houston, Omega uses this fleet to feed its large processing plant in Reedville, Va., a picturesque fishing village at the end of Virginia's Northern Neck.

Why are so many boats competing for a small, oily fish that most people have never heard of? You won't, after all, see menhaden in supermarkets or seafood stores or on restaurant menus. If the fish are caught by snapper rigs, or by pound-netters, who work with stationary shallow-water traps, they'll likely end up as bait for crabbers and chum for charter-boat crews trying to catch striped bass. If they are caught by Omega's fleet, on the other hand, they'll be compressed, or "reduced," into fertilizer, fishmeal or fish oil. If you eat farm-raised fish or chicken, you may be indirectly sneaking menhaden into your diet. If you pop a daily fish-oil pill with omega-3 fatty acids, you may be using menhaden to keep your heart healthy. If you give your house a new coat of paint, menhaden oil might be part of that Williamsburg blue you chose. Products for agriculture, aquaculture, industry and health foods, and bait for fishermen--it's no wonder the little menhaden is a big money fish. 

Spotting osprey to the north, Rogers and four of his crew jump down to a smaller "net boat" and motor toward the day's first school of menhaden, hoping to beat Omega to the catch. As they near the school they drop a sea anchor attached to one end of a purse seine net, then arc around the fish, spooling out net and carving a circle around them. Several osprey and pelicans come wheeling lower to feed, and some of the menhaden begin slipping out of the closing corral.

Closing the loop back to the anchored end of the net, the crew hooks the two net ends together. The purse seine now surrounds the school, and the crew begins drawing the net together from underneath the school, cutting off the deep escape route. Running the two net ends through a power block--a kind of mechanized pulley--they close the bottom of the net, closing up the purse and forcing the trapped fish towards the surface. The water in the loop begins to fleck and bubble, the surface dimpling as though raindrops were splattering it from below. More birds descend.

Watching the action from the high bridge of Hush Puppy, Ray Rogers, father of Fred, tells a deckhand about the day he saw an osprey get "robbed." The burglar was a bald eagle that was harassing a fish-holding osprey, swiping and swiping at the osprey, trying to get it to drop its prey. It finally did, and immediately the eagle whirled in mid-air and dove. It swooped under the fish, barrel-rolled so that it was flying upside-down, and caught the thing in its talons well before it reached the water. A daylight battle, aerobatics high over the Bay, all for a small oily fish called menhaden. 

Eagles and osprey aren't the only ones willing to go to war over menhaden these days. With fish stocks at a 54-year low, sportfishers and environmentalists are pushing hard for new regulations that would sharply curtail the commercial harvest of menhaden. Groups such as the Coastal Conservation Association and the Maryland Saltwater Sportfishing Association have created the Menhaden Coalition, an alliance that includes 33 sportfishing and environmental organizations with total memberships topping 400,000 and a common goal of keeping menhaden out of all those commercial nets. 

There's a lot of menhaden going into those nets. From a good net set, they might vacuum nine tons of fish into Hush Puppy's hold. An Omega ship, working two net boats and a bigger purse seine, might get twice that, 18 tons, in a single haul. When people speak of the bounty of the Chesapeake, they think first of blue crabs and bluefish, rockfish, clams and oysters. But the greatest seafood poundage harvested annually out of the Bay has for a long time been menhaden, by a large margin--easily half the total of finfish and shellfish combined. 

The way sportfishers see it, every netful of menhaden pulled from the Bay robs food from the mouths of fish and birds. It's not entirely an altruistic argument, of course: sportfishers want more menhaden to stay in the water as food for their own recreational quarry--rockfish, drum, spot, etc. In the last two decades, their combined communication campaigns have focused the public debate on one key question: Who gets first call on the menhaden bounty of Chesapeake Bay? Should it be the big boats of Omega Protein? The smaller snapper rigs? The pound-netters who work along Maryland and Virginia shorelines? What about the rockfish and bluefish? What about the eagles and ospreys? Who gets the biggest share in this food fight? And who gets robbed?

The biggest battles in the war over menhaden aren't waged out on the Chesapeake Bay or the Atlantic Ocean. They take place in the crowded hotel conference rooms where the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) meets to set regulatory policy for this country's coastal fisheries. Last November the Commission met in Boston and voted in favor of a policy that could impose new restrictions on the commercial harvest of menhaden. 

The goal of the proposal sounded simple enough: it called for increasing the number of menhaden that could spawn in coastal waters. But everyone in the room knew that would require decreasing the number of menhaden that end up in commercial nets. The proposal finally passed by a vote of 14 to 3 with the only nay votes coming from Virginia, the Potomac Rivers Fisheries Commission and New Jersey. 

The final tally brought silence from the staff and lawyers from Omega Protein who probably felt they were about to get robbed. Under various scenarios, commercial netters could be facing a harvest cap for 2013 that is 37 percent lower than the total harvest for 2010. Public hearings this spring and summer will take testimony on how much of that cutback has to be absorbed by Omega, by the snapper rigs and by the pound-netters. After technical reviews, the commission will vote again in November on whether or not to put the law in effect.

Not surprisingly, the vote brought cheers from sportfishing and conservation activists who say the proposed harvest restrictions could be a historic step towards a new method for managing this country's fisheries. The new approach is called "ecosystem-based fisheries management." That's a mouthful, but the meaning is clear enough; it shifts primary focus to the roles that a fish species plays in the health and structure of an entire ecosystem. That's a radical departure from more traditional single-species management--which focuses on a target fish as a profit center and then tries to figure out a "maximum sustainable yield"--the greatest number of fish you can take without depleting the species' population beyond recovery. 

Under the new paradigm, fishery managers would look first at the "ecosystem services" that a species provides and then balance those benefits against the economic payoff that comes from the commercial harvest. Menhaden, for example, are not just food for larger fish; they also seem to play a key role in the energy flow of the ecosystem. As filter feeders they convert plankton energy to fish flesh (their own), which in turn becomes food for predators like rockfish and ospreys. "Menhaden have a unique role in that mid-trophic position," said Dave Secor, a fishery biologist with the Chesapeake Bay Laboratory. "There are not many fish that perform that role in the Chesapeake." 

The new ecosystem approach has its skeptics, and its new popularity has landed scientists dead in the middle of the current menhaden wars. The skeptics claim the approach might be far too complicated to apply to a real-world fishery crisis. If menhaden play key roles in the ecology of the system, they ask, can scientists realistically figure out all those roles? And will their findings be convincing enough to force cutbacks on such an economically significant fishery? 

Monty Deihl of Omega Protein is clearly one of those skeptics. "We catch a very small percentage of the stock each year, very small," says Deihl, general manager the Omega plant in Reedville, Va.--the town where his father, grandfather and great-grandfather once went to work on the menhaden boats. "We've done this for 130 years, and now there is less fishing pressure on this stock than ever before."

Tall, broad-shouldered and confident, Deihl is a Reedville native, but he took over as manager only three years ago, after a long career with the Air Force and a short career with a defense contractor. He came back to an industry that has shrunk drastically from its heyday in the 1950s. Back then there were 20 reduction plants perched along the Atlantic Coast, now there is one--the Omega Protein plant he manages. Just since 1997, the menhaden fleet fishing the Bay and the mid-Atlantic coast has dropped from 20 vessels to 9. And its harvests are running 30 percent below the previous decade. 

Even as commercial catches kept dropping, anger and opposition from sportfishers and conservationists kept growing. A key part of his job at Omega, Deihl decided early on, was building a better public case for commercial fishing. But when he turned to fishery science looking for support, he discovered some findings that helped his cause--and some that didn't. 

"It's the environmental conditions that make or break the fishery--not the stock, not the fishing," and scientists would agree with him that environmental conditions are in fact the key factor. Researchers who track the menhaden fishery have documented a series of booms and busts in menhaden populations that seems to be driven by climate cycles that can last several decades. The latest cycle, which started in the late 1980s, has been sending menhaden populations in a downward slide. 

Menhaden spawn in the ocean zone between the Gulf Stream and the near shore, and it takes a tricky combination of currents and weather and wind to eventually carry significant numbers of menhaden eggs and larvae into nursery areas like the Chesapeake. Driving those water, weather and wind forces are larger and more complicated climate patterns. Water temperatures, for example, reflect the long-term shifts between the oceanic warming and cooling patterns of the so-called Atlantic multi-decadal oscillation. Atmospheric pressure and wind patterns respond to the east-west wanderings of the Bermuda-Azores high-pressure system. All of this remains poorly understood--and of course is beyond the control of fisheries managers.

In the face of those forces, a cutback in commercial harvests won't by itself bring a flood of new menhaden into our bays and coastal waters. "It is the environmental conditions that make or break the fishery--not the stock, not the fishing," Deihl says. "If the environmental conditions are not right, then [the cutback won't] matter anyway." And if the conditions are right, the cutbacks still aren't necessary, at least according to Deihl, who insists that "what was there in the first place was plenty to sustain the stock."

It's a persuasive argument as he delivers it, but one that leaves aside some other findings from fishery science. Less fishing would leave more spawners, and they in turn could put more eggs and larvae in the ocean, ready to be carried shoreward when the right conditions arise. "Schooling fish can respond very rapidly to favorable conditions," says Dave Secor, a fishery researcher with the Chesapeake Biological Laboratory who has been studying the dynamics of recruitment. "They can suddenly break out into new foraging conditions, or break out of predation and have a big spatial expansion. This is a common pattern for schooling fish, like menhaden, herring and anchovies." More spawners, in short, might magnify a boom year. 

In these decades of decline Omega has kept squeezing good profits out of the fishery, largely because of its success in finding new uses for fish oil--especially in health supplements containing omega-3 fatty acids. To earn those profits, the company was operating nine large vessels and eight spotter planes during 2011. Those boats and planes work in Virginia's portion of Chesapeake Bay and in the ocean waters off Virginia and North Carolina, the only states that still allow fishing inside the three-mile limit. Omega also fishes the ocean off New Jersey, Delaware and Maryland.

The largest chunk of Omega's catch, however, comes from Virginia's ocean waters and from the lower Chesapeake Bay. And that's where the loudest complaints are now coming from, as recreational fishermen in both Maryland and Virginia are campaigning hard to reserve menhaden as the primary food for striped bass, weakfish and bluefish, their target species.

"We think the marine predators have first call on this resource," says Jerry Benson, vice president of the Virginia chapter of the Coastal Conservation Association of Virginia. "Is that unreasonable? They depend on that for life itself. It's not a profit deal for them." 

A stocky man with graying hair and beard, and a ruddy, friendly face, Benson is standing in the hallway outside a meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, where he's come to argue for cutbacks on commercial netting of menhaden. Whether he's addressing a crowded meeting or a single reporter, Benson speaks calmly, even quietly, but his organization is one of the loudest voices pushing for cutbacks on commercial harvesting by Omega Protein in Reedville.

"To have a healthy ecosystem," he says, "you need more menhaden in the water." He is quoting a passage straight from the ecosystem bible, and in his crusade for cutbacks on commercial netting, Benson has been a consistent advocate for a science-based approach that values menhaden for their ecosystem services. But science doesn't always buttress his argument either.

Sportfishers used to claim, for example, that menhaden probably improved water quality, a potential ecosystem "service," largely because they are filter feeders for much of their lives, catching phytoplankton as it passes through their gills. But a Virginia Institute of Marine Science (VIMS) study showed that, at least in current Bay conditions, menhaden appear to have little or no impact on water quality. As menhaden grow larger, the spaces between their gills grow wider, allowing small phytoplankton to escape. 

The findings of the VIMS study came as a surprise to Bill Goldsborough, senior fishery scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), a major funder of the study. According to Goldsborough and other scientists, the Bay's increasing nutrient overload has probably spurred the evolution of many smaller phytoplankton species that can't be captured by adult menhaden.  

Nobody disputes, however, that menhaden provide this service: They are a primary food source for other fish. They played a key role in the hard-earned recovery of rockfish (aka striped bass or "stripers"). The current low stand in menhaden stocks worries sportfishers precisely because it threatens the rockfish comeback that began back in the early 1980s. It was, after all, a comeback that came with some pain: A moratorium on fishing was followed by a carefully monitored quota system imposed on both commercial and recreational fishermen. But the pain paid off: Rockfish populations along the coast increased from less than 9 million fish 1982 to an estimated 70 million by 2004. And that, for a while, looked like a great Chesapeake Bay success story.

Menhaden have always been a favorite prey for rockfish. Young rocks start with small prey like anchovies and then quickly graduate to juvenile menhaden. As they grow older and larger, they keep eating menhaden, moving up to larger, older menhaden. "These older striped bass are capable of eating all sizes of menhaden," says Jim Uphoff, a field biologist with the Maryland Department of Natural Resources (DNR).  "And they do." They chase menhaden for the same reason Omega's boats chase them. Their high lipid and protein content creates a high-energy nutrition for stripers and an oil source for omega's commercial products. 

The recovery of striper stocks seemed to stand as the best evidence that rigorous management--in this case single-species management--can save a fishery. "None of us are big fans of government regulation," says Billy Pipkin, a Reedville charterboat captain who well remembers the pain of the moratorium. "But if it wasn't for government intervention in the striped bass industry, we would be without striped bass now." he says. 

But that recovery strategy, many now say, was too narrow in its focus. In a number of studies, the recovery of rockfish is being implicated in the decline of menhaden. Rebuilding the rockfish population was the same as dropping another fleet of harvesters into the Bay, says the DNR's Uphoff, a field researcher who models the bioenergetics needs of fish populations. Since 1997, according to his calculations, that the fleet of stripers may have been harvesting more menhaden than the fleet of Omega boats.

"The striped bass recovery was a great success story that was also a failure," says CBF's Goldsborough, who is also a member of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. "If you are going to maintain a high level of a predator, you have to preserve its primary food base," he said. Single-species management succeeded in bringing back rockfish, he says, but it failed to anticipate how all those new stripers might change the ecosystem. 

And they are still changing the ecosystem. Rockfish are expanding their diet to other species--including blue crabs--and big rockfish, unable to find large menhaden, are now going after anchovies and smaller menhaden. "The anchovy is like the starter fish for small weakfish, blue fish and striped bass," Uphoff says. "If a big striped bass is eating anchovies, then he's competing with all these smaller fish."

And of course there's one other environmental success story that is bad news for the menhaden--the comeback of ospreys and eagles and pelicans and other fish-eating birds of prey. Ospreys in particular are thought to subsist mostly on menhaden. A William and Mary University study in the mid-1980s, at the beginning to the osprey's rebound, showed that the fish hawk's diet might be as much as 75 percent menhaden. So add a vast and still growing air squadron of fish-hunters to the equation.

Given all the complexities, can ecosystem-based management work? Can fishery science identify, describe, quantify, model and connect all the interactions that can affect the fate and ecological role of a fish species like menhaden in an ecosystem like the Chesapeake? Can it figure out, for example, all the interconnections among those large-scale climate forces that drive fish booms and busts? Or the complex interplay among all those fish species that feed on other fish species?

Those questions have no clear answers for now, but the ecosystem approach does, at least, start with one advantage over the single-species approach. "It is a more cautious way of doing business," Uphoff says. "You're attempting to make these linkages, rather than managing as though they don't exist." 

Michael Fincham is editor of Chesapeake Quarterly, from which this article was adapted.

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