The earliest English description of the Chesapeake Bay, by 17th-century explorer Capt. John Smith, has long been used as a benchmark to compare this unique ecosystem's health to what it once was long ago. More recently, we find ourselves comparing the Bay of today with the Bay of only 40 years ago, 20 years ago, or even 10 years ago.
These constant changes—most noticeably the clarity of the water and abundance of key species—can't always be linked to a single phenomenon. One species of fish, though, stands out among the rest as its well-being is directly linked to the overall health of the Bay: the menhaden.
Four hundred years ago, no other fish was quite as ubiquitous as the menhaden. Despite its relatively small size and oily composition, making it less than ideal for for human consumption, Smith once described the menhaden as "lying so thick with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan."
The Bay of Smith's time—the sights one could see along his historic route from the mouth of the James River at Jamestown all of the way north to the Susquehanna—would have been drastically different without this small but mighty fish.
Menhaden are relatively low in the food chain. But fish important to both the recreational and commercial fishing industries eat menhaden—from weakfish to striped bass (rockfish) to tuna. Coastal birds, such as osprey and loons, also prey on these fish. As menhaden populations thrive, so too do the populations of all these predators. Overall, the health of the entire Bay's ecosystem depends on the integral role this small fish plays.
Beyond the Chesapeake, menhaden are found up and down the Atlantic coast. Recently determined to make their presence known, healthier menhaden populations have turned up in the waters of New York and Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, bringing along beautiful dinner guests such as North Atlantic right whales, humpback whales and dolphins. Management of the menhaden fishery has contributed significantly to this recent phenomenon; these waters are starting to resemble their pre-whaling times.
The Bay can and should learn from these examples. No stranger to the importance of menhaden, the Bay Journal has documented their decline, the negative impacts associated therewith and the history of its management since the 1990s.
The menhaden fishery is the largest in the Atlantic, with an approved total allowable catch of 200,000 metric tons for the 2017 fishing system. Virginia is allocated 85.32 percent of that catch while Maryland is allocated 1.37 percent, which means most of the fish stock is taken from the lower Chesapeake. It's no surprise then, that neighbors to the north are seeing different results than we are here in the Bay region.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has ramped up its oversight of menhaden fisheries because of growing concerns by recreational anglers and conservationists that too few were left uncaught to support the fish, birds and whales that depend on them.
In the Chesapeake, some recreational anglers believe the depleted menhaden population caused an increase in malnutrition-based disease among striped bass —which depend on a steady diet of menhaden.
Although the menhaden population today has been deemed "not overfished" by the ASMFC, the wide-ranging impact of this species cannot be ignored. The menhaden fishery cannot be looked at solely based on the size of its population from a decade or so ago. Instead, management of menhaden should and must also take into account their ecological value to other species—and in turn to recreational and commercial fishing, to the "reduction" industry (fish oil, fertilizer, etc.) and even to ecotourism, which depends on clean, biodiverse waters.
When we look back in twenty years, we don't want to, once again, compare the Bay to our very recent past with such distinction. The menhaden is undoubtedly a keystone species with natural, historic and economic importance. Preservation of the Bay's historical and natural resources is something we at the Chesapeake Conservancy strive to achieve—and we need your help, as well.
The ASMFC will be making its final decision on the future of this important fish on Nov. 14. It is our hope that the commission will use this ecology-based approach to management and work on returning the Bay to full health rather than focus on an industry-based approach that will earmark the Bay's current conditions as the new standard.
Joel Dunn is the president and CEO of the Chesapeake Conservancy. His views do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.