The following op-ed was provided to The Dagger by Giuliana Kunkel, a Masters of Public Policy candidate at the University of Maryland.
Marylanders treasure the Chesapeake Bay for its natural beauty, its economic value, and of course, for its wildlife. Last Thursday, a highly valued member of Bay’s ecosystem finally received the attention that it deserves. No, this creature was not the famous Eastern oyster or the blue crab. This animal was the far less tasty, yet highly invaluable, Atlantic menhaden.
Last week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council (ASMFC) met it Boston for its 70th annual meeting where one of the key topics of conversation was the industrial harvest of menhaden in and around the Chesapeake Bay. Many on the council have theorized that a contributing factor to a decline in the bay’s water quality and the health of its sport fish species may have links to the harvesting of menhaden.
On Thursday, the Commission’s Atlantic Menhaden Management Board approved Addendum V to Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden. Simply put, the adoption of this plan will establish a new interim fishing mortality threshold and target based on maximum spawning potential of the fish. If successful, this plan could significantly reduce the harvests of menhaden by up to 37 percent each year.
Although these small and oily fish are not in high demand for human consumption, they certainly are a necessity and a key staple to the diets of many of the bay’s fish species, including the striped bass, another invaluable resource that has undergone its fair share of environmental stresses.
Not only however, are menhaden such a precious commodity because of their critical role in the Bay’s food chain, similar to oysters, menhaden act as filter feeders as the adult fish are able to filter up to four gallons of water in one minute.
Unfortunately in recent years, so much of the Bay has transformed into a “dead zone” coated by an excess of algal blooms that have literally been choking its waters by depriving its marine life of sunlight and oxygen. Menhaden have the ability to reduce some of the bay’s algae and other phytoplankton, which could lead to a decline in these hazardous dead zones.
While this decision by the ASMFC was a critical step on the long path towards the Chesapeake Bay’s recovery, the decision-making process was no walk in the park. Many who harvest menhaden for industrial purposes were not pleased with the commission’s decision. Aside from menhaden being used as bait for watermen, there are also menhaden industry centers that use its oily features to create fishmeal, fish oils, fertilizers, and omega-3 supplements. One such company in the Chesapeake Bay watershed is in Reedville, Virginia, and it processes the second greatest amount of menhaden in the United States.
The vote that took place in Boston had been the product of over a year’s worth of debate in which many voices had been involved. Because of the economic interests of menhaden harvesters, Virginia representatives on the council voted for a 23 percent reduction in menhaden harvest rather than the 37 percent cut that the committee later agreed upon.
While some in Virginia were displeased with this decision, this was a choice that was extremely necessary for the Bay’s improvement. In a press release last Thursday, Governor O’Malley said, “the new more conservative fishing threshold and target are significant steps in ensuring a sustainable future for menhaden, an essential food source for [many] wildlife species.” Governor O’Malley also made sure to extend his appreciation to the 14 member states of the ASMFC as well as acknowledge the dedication of Maryland’s fishery managers for “work[ing] tirelessly… to protect what has been called the most important fish in the sea.”
Governor O’Malley took a vital stance on an issue that holds a great importance in improving the health of much of the aquatic life that Maryland prides itself on. Through many studies, researchers have found a great deal of positive effects that menhaden could have on the Bay’s future. Now is the time to finally test menhaden’s impact on water quality and the Bay’s wildlife.
The new limits to reduce menhaden harvest by 37 percent as adopted by the ASMFC are expected to be in place by 2013. While some of the businesses that depend on menhaden will experience cuts, this is a move has been long overdue and is completely necessary for the Bay on its long road to recovery.