Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal, its board or staff.

Here we go again. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has held hearings up and down the East Coast on what to do about menhaden: Should we keep catching the same amount, catch more, catch less, or do an ecosystem study to see how menhaden fit into the scheme of saving the Chesapeake Bay?

Maybe we need a little refresher course about menhaden. Many people still do not know much about them. They have been called the “most important fish in the sea,” which is also the title of a book written by H. Bruce Franklin.

They are a small oily fish that we do not eat; they taste bad. The biggest they get is 15 inches, but very few reach that size before they are harvested or eaten by other animals.

For a time, they were caught for lamp oil when whales were declining in numbers. I once asked an expert on striped bass what he knew about menhaden. He said he knew nothing about menhaden. How can you be an expert on striped bass and not know about the main food that striped bass eat?

What do menhaden eat? They eat plankton: phytoplankton (microscopic plants) and zooplankton (microscopic animals). When menhaden eat plankton, they reduce the risk of toxic algal blooms.

Oysters seem to get more credit than menhaden for removing excess plankton from the Chesapeake Bay, perhaps because we eat oysters but not menhaden. The truth be known, menhaden would do a better job of removing plankton if given the chance. Oysters lie on the bottom, opening their shells, which is almost imperceptible, to draw in water and remove the plankton. They have to wait for the wind or tide to bring more plankton. Menhaden feed throughout the water column, swimming with their large mouths agape, mostly at the top, where the phytoplankton grows.

When oysters were prolific in the Bay, the water was clear compared with what it is today. I still remember being able to walk in water up to my chest and see the crabs I was trying to catch. That is my standard. When I was a young man and I asked some of the old-timers, they said they remembered when you could see 12 feet down. That was their standard. The new standard for kids today may only be a couple of feet.

We have been trying to bring the oysters back with various amounts of success, but we have a fish that can do a better job if left alone. The millions and millions of menhaden that are removed every year ate millions and millions of pounds of plankton. (The numbers are available if you are interested.) They should be left in the water to do what nature intended.

If you are wondering why these fish are so important, it’s because they are also food for most of the other fish that eat fish. If it weren’t for the fish that eat plankton there would be no predator fish.

What we have now is one company, Omega Protein, that accounts for the vast majority of all menhaden caught in the Bay and along the coast. It is hard for me to grasp how this company is allowed to do this to a fish that belongs to all of us. How does it happen?

Most of the menhaden are caught in Virginia. The menhaden are regulated by the Virginia legislature in Virginia waters (Chesapeake Bay). They should be regulated by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, but the ASMFC regulates the fish from the shore to 3 miles out into the ocean.

Bills in the Virginia legislature to move the regulation of menhaden to the VMRC never get out of the subcommittee. Maryland does not allow menhaden reduction boats into the Maryland parts of the Chesapeake Bay.

Every year, the ASMFC lets people have their say about menhaden and then does nothing or very little, stating that the menhaden are “not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.”

What if we were to ask the whales, striped bass, bluefish, eagles, ospreys and seagulls what they think? Of course, we can’t do that. Then who is ultimately responsible for seeing that these animals are provided for as nature intended? WE ARE! Haven’t we seen enough of what happens when we don’t pay attention to the environment around us?

Buffaloes, passenger pigeons, and now rhinoceroses and elephants are all examples of what happens if we don’t get involved. But it is not just land animals, it is also water animals like whales, codfish and who can forget the striped bass when their numbers got so low that a five-year fishing moratorium was placed on them. There are so few bluefin tuna that they are now worth thousands of dollars for just one.

And there sure is enough evidence and enough written about the loss of our oysters. Are we not doing the same thing to our menhaden? I contend that we are. How can you remove millions of pounds of menhaden and not be thinking that you are upsetting the balance of nature?

Yes, I remember the days when I could count 30 to 40 boats on the Potomac River every weekend during the summer — all of them catching fish. There are hardly any now. I remember catching crabs just by walking the beach with a net and a bucket. I remember the many schools of menhaden on the river in the fall and many seagulls diving to pick up the scraps from the bluefish. Yes, the “tragedy of the commons” is alive and well.

So many decisions we make favor us and not the environment. I hope that in the future we will not hear somebody asking, “Why didn’t somebody do something about the menhaden when we knew how important they were and that they were being decimated?”

Note: the opinions expressed in this column are those of the writers and do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal, its board or staff.