Features

May/June 2012 A Fish Story

How an angler and two government bureaucrats may have saved the Atlantic Ocean.

By Alison Fairbrother

On a balmy afternoon in late summer, Jim Price reaches into the body cavity of a striped bass and pulls out a spleen. The sixty-eight-year-old jewelry-store owner palpates the organ with long gloved fingers, checking for disease. Finding none, he sets it aside before turning his attention back to the carcass. “There’s something here,” he barks, as he slices into the stomach with a scalpel and his volunteer assistant Jerry moves in for a closer look.

Jerry is two decades younger, with bristly whiskers, a butcher’s smock, and a John Deere cap. In his cheek is a wad of chewing tobacco. The two are standing on a dock on an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, hunched over a metal table with a plastic tarp suspended over their heads to protect them from the sun. The heat doesn’t seem to faze them, nor does the stench emanating from the pile of filleted bass carcasses that fishermen have been dropping at their feet all day.

Price slides his finger along the stomach lining, a look of anticipation creasing his face. After careful prodding, he pulls out a silvery six-inch fish. “There,” he exhales. It is an Atlantic menhaden, a bony, oily fish that has been the subject of warring factions of fishermen and coastal communities for the better part of two centuries.

Price is a lifelong striped bass fisherman with no formal training as a scientist. Yet he has spent the last four decades cutting open bass stomachs in a kind of renegade ecological study, charting the precipitous decline of the lowly menhaden. Price’s interest in the species is indirect; menhaden aren’t prized by anglers. But they are prized by striped bass. The little fish has historically been the striper’s most significant source of protein and calories. In fact, menhaden are a staple in the diets of dozens of marine predators in the Atlantic and its estuaries, from osprey to bluefish to dolphin to blue crab. In a host of undersea food chains, menhaden—also known as pogy and bunker—are a common denominator. They have been called the most important fish in the sea.

Price began his study years ago when it became increasingly evident to him that the striped bass in the Chesapeake were quite literally starving. And so, at least once a week he dissects bass to see whether the fish ate recently before they died. He squeezes spleens to determine if the fish had mycobacteriosis, a serious infection related to malnutrition that affects more than 60 percent of the striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay. He relays his findings in a numerical code of his own devising. “Body fat is a ten, ovaries a two, spleen is okay, empty stomach,” he says gruffly, while his wife, Henrietta, dutifully transcribes his thoughts into a ledger. Four times out of fifty, he pulls a whole menhaden from a bass belly, weighing each one with a small scale.

Local sport fishermen are happy to help Price by leaving him the bones and innards of their catch, because his work confirms what anglers up and down the Atlantic coast know from direct experience: the menhaden are disappearing.

Like any good mystery, this one has a prime suspect. Across the Chesapeake and about sixty miles to the south of where Price stands, a seaside factory hums and buzzes, filling the small town of Reedville, Virginia, with the putrid smell of menhaden chum. The looming smokestacks, warehouses, and pretty much everything else on Reedville’s Menhaden Road are owned by Omega Protein, a publicly traded company headquartered in Houston with a long and storied history of industrial fishing in Atlantic waters.

The operation is high-tech. Spotter planes take off from Reedville’s tiny airstrip to circle swathes of ocean, looking for the telltale shadow of menhaden moving by the million just below the surface. Pilots radio Omega Protein’s fleet of nine refurbished World War II transport ships, one of which dispatches two smaller boats that surround the school with a giant net called a purse seine, drawing the fish tightly together using the mechanics of a drawstring sack, until all the members of the school can be sucked out of the ocean with a vacuum pump. The boats can “set” the net twelve to fifteen times a day; a vessel will return to port with millions of menhaden aboard.

Harvested by the billions and then processed into various industrial products, menhaden are extruded into feed pellets that make up the staple food product for a booming global aquaculture market, diluted into oil for omega-3 health supplements, and sold in various meals and liquids to companies that make pet food, livestock feed, fertilizer, and cosmetics. We have all consumed menhaden one way or another. Pound for pound, more menhaden are pulled from the sea than any other fish species in the continental United States, and 80 percent of the menhaden netted from the Atlantic are the property of a single company.

To determine whether or not Omega Protein is overfishing menhaden, the government relies on a set of methods and calculations that are mystifying in their complexity. Every time Omega’s captains return to the Reedville port, they report their daily “unload”—how many tons of fish they have removed from the water. Onshore, a government agent periodically examines a handful of fish scooped from the ship’s hold and uses them to estimate the size and age composition of the day’s catch. Information from these samples, collected over the course of the fishing season, are collated with the captain’s logs, and the data goes to a single scientist for processing at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s (NOAA) fishery lab in Beaufort, North Carolina. There it is gathered together with harvest information from the handful of smaller companies that fish for menhaden along the coast to sell as bait, as well as trend data from a few independent scientific surveys. This stew of data is fed into a mathematical fishery assessment model that takes many scientists and several months to run. The process generates an estimate of how many eggs the current menhaden population is producing, compared to how many eggs there would be in an unfished, pristine environment. This information is handed over to a sleepy, part-time board of regulators called the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), who decide whether fish stocks are at a safe level or if there should be concerns about overfishing.

Alison Fairbrother is the director of the nonpartisan Public Trust Project, which investigates and reports on misrepresentations of science by corporations and government, and promotes the findings of independent scientists.

Comments

  • William Bartlett on May 09, 2012 9:53 AM:

    Dear Ms. Fairbrother,
    What great coverage of the menhaden issue.
    I can't see where you missed a thing.
    Thank you for all that you have been doing to bring back the menhaden.

  • Dick on May 09, 2012 12:43 PM:

    It seems like its a case of "Follow the Money" again. Lobbying and political contributions focused on Virginia and NJ outweigh the "science" of the ASMFC and the overwhelming logic of protecting the most important forage fish in the sea. ASMFC needs to grow a pair.

    Has anyone looked into buying out Omega via acquiring a majority of its outstanding stock? Then management policies could be made more eco-friendly by shareholder activism pressure on the board of directors. Certainly PEW could lead the way. Perhaps a coalition of ecology and recreational fishing groups could do it. Follow the money!

    The other aspect of Menhaden not covered in the excellent article is its unique ability to clean up harbors and estuaries by virtue of its filter-feeding. Conservation groups not directly involved with fishing are taking an interest in the plight of this poor fish. Oysters can't do it all alone. Water quality has an economic value.

  • Dave H on May 09, 2012 1:30 PM:

    Typical, argue that this is "only" a model, the "science isn't settled", the observed declines are "anecdotal", etc. Sounds like global warming, acid rain, and every other ecological cause the GOP opposes.

  • Bartley Tumolo on May 09, 2012 1:43 PM:

    The most complete article I have read on this subject, now we all must work for the future of the "lowly bunker", the anchor of the coastal fisheries... big fish eat little fish, and that's science we all understand !!

  • Jen Dalton on May 09, 2012 10:33 PM:

    A magnificent piece of research and writing. I feel I've been given a very well-rounded picture of a serious issue, made even more important because it shows the nature of corporate obscurantism, exposed by an almost cinematic process of gum-shoe scientific activism bringing about positive change. Thanks.

  • David Nyberg on May 10, 2012 6:31 PM:

    Gee, I thought this issue was well on the to being solved at an acceptable level for the fish. It is sad that ASMFC is not up to the task. Thanks to everyone who has brought this to the attention of the public. I believe that many will be keeping a close eye on what is going on.

  • Anna on May 11, 2012 3:11 AM:

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  • Devin on May 11, 2012 4:36 PM:

    Nice article! I saw it linked to from Andrew Sullivan's The Dish.

  • Jerry Jarombek on May 11, 2012 10:13 PM:

    Wonderful article. I tell my bait shop friends that this is their fight. When bunker are present, bass and blue fishing improves; when fishing improves more people go fishing; when more go fishing, bait shops sell more bait and tackle.

  • Anon on May 12, 2012 9:21 PM:

    Wonderful, wonderful article. I'm embarrassed to admit (especially as an environmentalist and sometime freshwater fisherman) my boyfriend and I always assumed the fish emulsion purchased for our garden bed came from scrap. The things you take for granted... my uncle always just buried fish scraps in a corner of his garden like his father before him did. I suppose I'll just start doing the same once I figure out a good raccoon barrier.

    This article with a note about the products Omega produces will be forwarded to quite a few people.

    Thank you, again.

  • Kevin Law on May 14, 2012 3:24 PM:

    "No little fish, no big fish"

  • Tom M. on May 16, 2012 7:59 AM:

    Dave H on May 09, 2012 1:30 PM:

    Typical, argue that this is "only" a model, the "science isn't settled", the observed declines are "anecdotal", etc. Sounds like global warming, acid rain, and every other ecological cause the GOP opposes.

    Gee Dave, what a typical idiotic, liberal thing to say. The only REAL environmentalists are hunters and fishermen as we put our money where our mouth is. Smelly hippies talk a lot while using every new electronic device available and driving electric cars which run on electricity produced by burning coal, therefore producing acid rain. You and Al Gore can bite me.

  • Rick Edmund on May 17, 2012 8:34 PM:

    As the article stated, rockfish eat small crabs too. With less menhaden, more crabs are eaten. Up to 100 crabs might be found in the belly of rockfish. I live on Smith Island, MD where the abundance of crabs affects the Island's income. Another reason to restrict the numbers of menhaden caught. An excellent well researched and written article.

  • Alan on May 19, 2012 9:08 AM:

    I can only hope the environment and menhaden win this battle. Over the last few years, Virginia has been taken over by the radical right and are hell bent on destroying everything that does not meet their business first agenda.

    I do like the idea of controlling the stock of the company.

    Surely a coalition of conversation groups could do this.

  • Marilou McCrosky on May 19, 2012 9:34 AM:

    You have done a lot of research but you missed the fact that the menhaden does not use the Chesapeake Bay as a nursery. They spawn out in the ocean. This is an important piece of this puzzle. Certainly a rise in the population of the menhaden would help restore the bay, but stopping a harvest that an existing population has adapted to could have disastrous consequences. I know that quantities of menhaden have been harvested consistently for over 100 years. Because this timeframe is outside of the lifespan of this species, evolution to adapt to this harvest pressure must be present or the population would have been eliminated.
    In addition, the processing plant is located on Cockrell's Creek, we use the possessive. I grew up in Reedville.

  • Sherilyn Neurles on May 19, 2012 11:32 PM:

    A pertinent and informative article, but what happened to past tense? How about:

    On a balmy afternoon in late summer, Jim Price REACHED into the body cavity of a striped bass and PULLED out a spleen. The sixty-eight-year-old jewelry-store owner PALPATED the organ with long gloved fingers, checking for disease. Finding none, he SET it aside before turning his attention back to the carcass. “There’s something here,” he BARKED, as he SLICED into the stomach with a scalpel and his volunteer assistant Jerry MOVED in for a closer look.

    **************

    I know we tell jokes in present tense ("a horse walks into a bar'), but it drives me nuts in print and broadcast journalism.

  • sandra kaufman on May 23, 2012 10:16 PM:

    great story, I read the book "the most important fish in the sea" and I was "hooked" on this and other ocean/sea/waterways issues. More people need to know. thank you.

  • george thomas on June 02, 2012 10:47 AM:

    As a recreational angler from the Keys to the Gulf of Maine, the decline of the menhaden has been obvious for a decade - and with their disappearance has come the loss of the game fish that fuel the regional economy. Tackle shops in Maine have closed as the striper population has declined corresponding to the decline of mehaden and other bait fish. In Maine lobsters are being free-range fed in feeding stations (baited traps that are readily exited) using herring and other bait fish that are systematically harvested. The decline is everywhere apparent.

  • Aaron on June 02, 2012 11:25 AM:

    Wow, that was a fantastic read. I'll be looking forward to your work in the future.

  • Charlton Price on July 25, 2012 9:09 PM:


    This is magisterially competent research and editorially brilliant reportage. In the tradition of Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, and Ida Tarbell, masters of muckraking. Alison Fairbrother is helping to revive and sustain the higher standard of investigative journalism we so desperately need.

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