The Menhaden: A Little Fish with Big Problems
Photo by Brian Gratwicke

Reedville, Virginia is like most small fishing villages along the Atlantic Coast. The town has a couple churches, some bed and breakfast inns, an annual fishing contest, and even a fishing museum. However, Reedville is strikingly different than most other fishing towns. It is completely dependent on one fish and one fishing company – the menhaden and Omega Protein, Inc. Despite the town’s quaint appearance, Omega Protein’s dominance over the menhaden fishery  “reduction” industry has led Reedville to become the second largest port in the country in terms of total poundage. At one point, the menhaden industry made Reedville the wealthiest town in the country per capita, but today the historic Victorian mansions that line Reedville’s main street are the only surviving testaments to the heyday of the once vibrant fishing town.

Unlike most other fisheries, the menhaden harvest is not driven by the demand for human consumption, but rather for the use of its byproducts. Once menhaden are landed, they are “reduced” to liquids and fish meal which are used to develop popular products like Omega-3 vitamin supplements, fertilizer, livestock feed, dog food, fish bait, and even cosmetics. Although the entire Atlantic menhaden stock is considered healthy, some members of the fishing industry and the scientific community are worried that the commercially and environmentally valuable menhaden stock of the Chesapeake Bay is being depleted by overfishing and pollution.

The menhaden is a small silver fish, measuring only twelve to fifteen inches in length and weighing on average around a half-pound. What they lack in size, though, they make up for in numbers. The entire Atlantic stock has averaged above seven billion fish annually over the last thirty years and their schools can number in the millions. The size of their stock is their only real defense mechanism, making them an easy prey and an important food source for larger predator fish and birds. Like most forage fish, menhaden are filter feeders that help energy move up the food chain. The menhaden’s diet is made up almost entirely of plankton, allowing them access to a virtually unlimited supply of food. Unlike most other filter feeders, however, menhaden feed primarily on phytoplankton instead of zooplankton. This unique variation makes the menhaden an important player in the sensitive Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.

To understand the ecological significance of the menhaden, it is important to have a basic understanding of the Bay ecosystem. The Chesapeake Bay is the country’s largest estuary and is home to over 350 species of fish, shellfish, and plants. However, their survival is threatened by the declining water quality of the Bay. The poor health of the Bay ecosystem is mainly contributed to the excessive levels of nutrients, particularly nitrogen and phosphorous. These nutrients come primarily from discharged wastewater, air pollution, and urban and agricultural runoff from fertilizer and livestock waste. As the Bay region’s population has increased over the years, the land surrounding the Bay has been transformed from forests to farms and residential areas. These forests that once prevented excessive levels of these nutrients from reaching the Bay are now gone, and the menhaden is now one of the Bay’s last natural defenses.

Fishermen retrieving a net full of menahden. Photo courtesy of Chesapeake Bay Foundation/cbf.org

The menhaden’s filtering capabilities enable them to consume large amounts of these excess nutrients. According to the Chesapeake Ecological Foundation, a single menhaden can filter one million gallons every 180 days, and the entire Atlantic menhaden population has the potential to remove 25% of the Bay’s nutrients in one year through its consumption of plankton. By consuming such vast quantities of these microscopic plants, menhaden help to prevent the growth of algae blooms and allow sunlight to reach plants growing at the bottom of the Bay. As these bottom-dwelling plants grow, they increase the water’s oxygen levels, making conditions healthier for the rest of life in the Bay.

Unfortunately, the exact size of the Bay’s menhaden population is unknown, so it is impossible to know for sure whether it is shrinking and if so, by how much. What is known, however, is the number of menhaden being taken from the entire Atlantic coast each year. More pounds of menhaden are caught each year than most other fish combined. In fact, the menhaden is the second largest fishery in country, trailing only behind the Alaskan pollock fishery. According to the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, the historical average of menhaden landings from the Atlantic Coast varies between 300,000 and 400,000 metric tons, accounting for around 40% of the entire Atlantic coast fishing industry. If the Gulf of Mexico’s menhaden landings are included, this number nearly doubles. While these numbers may seem staggering, what is more surprising is that nearly 90% of all menhaden landed in both the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico are landed by Omega Protein, Inc.

The menhaden is one of the oldest and successful commercial fisheries in the country, dating back to the days of the Native Americans and the colonial fishing industry of the 18th and 19th centuries. It is widely believed that the menhaden was the fish that the Native American Squanto used when he taught the pilgrims to plant fish with their corn to increase crop production. Since then, the country has always relied on menhaden as an effective fertilizer. The fishing industry has always relied on menhaden not only for fish bait, but as a food source to sustain other commercial fish species. Despite the entire fishing industry’s dependence on the menhaden fishery, Houston-based Omega Protein has managed to dominate the menhaden fishery over the last century through its operations in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay.

Omega Protein employs between 250-300 people throughout the fishing season, and maintains a large fishing fleet consisting of 32 spotter planes and 41 fishing vessels. Like many industrial fishing companies, Omega Protein uses a fishing method called purse-seining which allows for entire schools to be captured at once. Omega Protein’s spotter planes constantly fly over the Bay and the Atlantic, searching for schools of menhaden. Once a school is located, they alert the waiting fishing vessels to its location. These fishing vessels are seiner boats, which travel to either side of the school and surround it with a large net called a purse seine. Once the seine is around the entire school, the seiner boats converge and pull the net together, trapping the entire school. The seiner boats then align themselves along a main fishing vessel and the fish are pumped into a holding area in the vessel’s hull and taken back to the processing plant in Reedville. The use of purse seines is extremely effective, however many foreign countries and states such as Maryland and Florida have banned the practice due to the risk of bycatches and concerns that it leads to overfishing.

Despite the enormous amount of menhaden that Omega Protein takes from the ocean, the company has been designated a leader in the industry for environmental stewardship and sustainable fishing practices. Omega Protein has been certified as a ‘Friend of the Sea’ and was awarded the Friend of the Sea Award in 2009 by the Friend of the Sea, an international non-profit organization that monitors and certifies fishing companies that engage in sustainable fishing practices. In addition to each state’s fisheries management agency, Omega Protein and all other fishing companies that land fish from the Atlantic are regulated under the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). The ASMFC is comprised of fifteen states along the eastern United States that share a stake in the proper management of the Atlantic’s fisheries. Each state is represented by an individual appointed by the governor, a state legislator, and an executive from the state fisheries management agency.

Vacuuming menhaden into the main fishing vessel. Photo courtesy of NOAA Magazine - www.noaanews.noaa.gov

From 2006 through 2013, an annual harvest cap of 109,020 metric tons of menhaden has been put in place by the ASMFC. Although the cap may be exceeded if previous years’ harvest falls below the cap, the ASMFC has warned that a higher cap may hinder the ability of Atlantic menhaden to survive. The ASMFC has also stated the need for a study of the Chesapeake Bay menhaden population so it can be used as a biological reference point. In spite of these regulations, 2010 has been a successful year for Omega Protein and other menhaden fishing companies. The annual Atlantic menhaden harvest has increased by 45% from the 83,000 metric tons caught in 2009 to 121,000 metric tons caught in the 2010 season. Also, in October Omega Protein received $18.7 million from the Gulf Coast Claims Facility for the damages caused by the Gulf oil spill earlier this year. Omega Protein has also strengthened its argument against claims that its menhaden harvest is destroying the water quality of the Bay. A preliminary study from Virginia Institute of Marine Science suggests that menhaden may play a smaller role than expected in the filtering of the Chesapeake Bay and may actually increase nitrogen levels during certain life stages.

However, conservation groups like the Chesapeake Ecological Foundation and Save the Menhaden Coalition continue to fight for the protection of menhaden and the Bay through public education, partnerships with government agencies, and by conducting original research. These groups and other members of the fishing industry are concerned with the indirect impacts of the menhaden harvest. For example, the striped bass which was once a primary predator of menhaden has shifted its diet in recent decades to a diet of shellfish and alternative prey. This shift is believed to be the cause of an increase in disease and mortality rates among striped bass.

Regardless of whether the claims of environmentalists are true, both sides of the debate agree that humans and countless other plant and animal species depend on the menhaden. This tiny fish has always played a vital role in the fishing industry and in important ecosystems like the Chesapeake Bay. Without the menhaden, there is no doubt that the environment and national economy would suffer severe consequences. While the scientific community, conservationists, and the fishing industry remains focused on the menhaden, it is only a small part of the much bigger challenge facing the restoration and protection of Chesapeake Bay’s waters.

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Patrick Gardner studies natural resources management within the Master of Environmental Studies program at the University of Pennsylvania. He has a strong interest in land use policy and land conservation, and spends time working to conserve open space in southeastern Pennsylvania. He enjoys spending his free time hiking and camping, and will be pursuing a law degree in the field following his graduation from the MES program in the spring.

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