The March Bay Journal 2017 commentary, Don’t let menhaden become a case of could have, should have, would have, laments the decline in Bay menhaden populations and blames the reduced number of predatory “sport” fish on Omega Protein’s harvest.
The Atlantic States Marine fisheries Commission is quite clear this year that “Atlantic menhaden are neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing” (asmfc.org/species/atlantic-menhaden).
In Maryland, juvenile menhaden are sampled annually through the Estuarine Juvenile Finfish Survey. The index of juvenile menhaden has been low since 1992, and “environmental conditions seem to be a major factor driving recruitment.” (dnr.maryland.gov/fisheries/Documents/Section_4_Atlantic_Menhaden.pdf).
Something other than overfishing must contribute to, or even be responsible for, reduced Bay menhaden populations. I contend that the primary cause of depleted finfish stocks, including bottom-feeding fish like croaker that do not eat menhaden, and the menhaden themselves, is poor water quality, not overfishing.
As a child in the late 1940s, I recall visiting my uncle’s cottage on the water near Solomons Island, MD, where we caught large bluefish and rockfish. He would give me a quarter to pull up eelgrass from under his boat so the propeller wouldn’t chop it up and foul the engine’s water pump. Dense meadows of grass were obvious beneath the clear water. I doubt there is much eelgrass anywhere near Solomons Island today and Bernie Fowler’s “Wade-In” documents turbidity and the fact that there has been no recent improvement.
I moved to Virginia’s Northern Neck on the Little Wicomico River, near Smith Point, in 1998. At that time, I could exit the jetties and turn to the southeast into about 30 feet of water and easily catch large croaker, as well as spot, trout and flounder. I haven’t caught fish there, nor seen them on the depth sounder, in many years.
The pound nets nearby still catch menhaden for crab bait, although they are smaller than fish in the past. They no longer catch many “food fish.”
In about 2000, big Omega trawlers fishing for menhaden were common up to the Maryland-Virginia line. Now, I never see the trawlers and most of the plentiful menhaden are being caught outside the Bay, where the population is robust. In late summer, schools of Spanish mackerel and bluefish once chased bait on the bar west of Smith Point Light. Casting into the schools, as they were being worked by birds, or trolling beside them, was great fun and very productive. No more.
Spanish mackerel, my favorite fish, are no longer abundant and I rarely see birds actively working the water. Trolling for big rockfish was almost always successful a decade ago. Lately it is more often unsuccessful, although a few are still being caught.
A decade ago, we caught small spot in early fall to use as bait for rockfish in the Little Wicomico jetties. It would take me longer to zoom the three miles to the jetties and back in the fast skiff than it did to catch two nice fat rockfish. The spot are no longer plentiful, and most of the rockfish are too small to keep and some have lesions. I don’t claim to be a great fisherman, but as a retired scientist who enjoys catching and eating fish, those are my observations over nearly two decades.
For many years, Smith Point Sea Rescue sponsored a Bluefish Tournament to raise money for their operation. They did not keep records, so I went to the archives of the Northumberland Echo, a local newspaper, and compiled the results from whatever the paper published. The tournament started in 1984, attracted 1,700 anglers and the largest bluefish weighed 17.5 pounds. Rockfish were added to the tournament in 1995 as the bluefish catch decreased. Croaker were added in 2008 when the bluefish were smaller and less abundant and the number of boats had fallen to less than 200.
The tournament did not take place after the 2012 season because there were so few participants the tournament was no longer profitable.
What does all this mean? Fish populations can be cyclic, and cobia have been relatively abundant recently. Are we just on the downside of many cycles? Or is the Bay ecosystem, including the benthic and pelagic sources of food for fish, adjusting to decades of turbid water, hypoxia/anoxia and decreasing amounts of eelgrass?
Can the Bay, including its recreational and commercial fin fishery, recover to conditions that existed even 20 years ago? Not in my opinion, unless agricultural nutrient pollution is meaningfully curtailed. Reducing pollution from urban sources — wastewater and storm water — has resulted in disappointingly small, and expensive, improvements in water quality because urbanization accounts for only about a quarter of Bay pollution and can never be eliminated.
More than half of the Bay’s nutrient pollution is derived from inefficient crop fertilization to maximize crop yields (profit) and provide society with cheap food. About a quarter of the Bay’s pollution derives from the disposal of animal waste — poultry litter, manure and sewage sludge — by land application, a source of pollution that can be eliminated, or significantly reduced if disposal is limited to the phosphorus needs of the crop. Water quality can only improve significantly when environmental organizations focus their advocacy on more-efficient crop fertilization and stop touting trivial water quality improvements in their quest for funding.
The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency must strictly regulate animal waste disposal in watersheds where impairment exists because of nutrient loads. Unless agricultural crop fertilization efficiency improves meaningfully, I fear the Chesapeake Bay fishery will continue to deteriorate for all of us, including Omega.
I agree with the author that “Why didn’t somebody do something about the menhaden?” We disagree about what must be done. He wants to stop harvesting menhaden. I want to force agriculture to fertilize more efficiently to benefit water quality for all of the Bay’s finfish, including menhaden.
The views expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.