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