May/June 2012 A Fish Story

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

By Alison Fairbrother

To the consternation of anglers like Price, the official science on menhaden has said the same thing for years: not to worry. This implacable wall of reassurance from the government has flown in the face of what countless people say they experience out on the water every day—from anglers reeling in malnourished game fish, to biologists who have witnessed population declines among birds that feed on menhaden, to the whale-watching charter captains who now struggle to find the menhaden schools around which humpbacks congregate. These groups can’t help but conclude that the population of menhaden is, in fact, declining fast. (I have spent the past year researching the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and advocating for the use of independent science in its regulatory decisions.) Many have accused the ASMFC of willful inaction and suspect the undue influence of regulators from Virginia, whose political bosses openly support Omega Protein, a major employer on the state’s Northern Neck. Since 2001, Omega Protein has contributed more than $220,000 in campaign contributions to Virginia politicians, including almost $60,000 to the current governor, Bob McDonnell, sometimes mentioned as a potential running mate for Mitt Romney. Yet such complaints have always been met by the same, debate stopping response from the ASMFC: “the science” says that the menhaden population is perfectly fine.

Over the last few years, however, the tables have been turned. In 2009, a routine methodological upgrade at NOAA—and the subsequent discovery of a few lines of faulty computer code—forced the start of a profound shift in the ASMFC’s estimates of menhaden stocks. Now, Price and his angler and environmental allies have the upper hand—at least for the moment. In response, Virginia politicians are threatening a bizarre countermove: seceding from the ASMFC, and thereby throwing the entire regulatory regime into disarray. The struggle for control of menhaden has suddenly been pulled out into the open water. How it plays out could determine the long-term ecological health of the Atlantic Ocean.

Menhaden were once so plentiful in the Atlantic that early pioneers described them as swimming in schools twenty-five miles long or more, packing themselves into bays and estuaries where they came to feed on dense schools of phytoplankton (algae and vegetable matter). Rutgers professor H. Bruce Franklin uncovered a trove of early accounts of menhaden for his book, The Most Important Fish in the Sea, like one from John Smith, who in 1608 encountered menhaden in the Chesapeake “lying so thick with their heads above the water, as for want of nets we attempted to catch them with a frying pan.”

In the 1860s, frying pans gave way to the purse seine, a device that enabled a boat to bag an entire school at a time. By 1876, half a billion pounds of menhaden were being processed in ninety-nine “reduction” factories along the Eastern Seaboard—so named for their way of breaking the fish down into raw materials. Menhaden were fueling an industrial boom: the oil in their flesh had replaced whale oil with an easily accessible, cheaper alternative; their husks were pulverized into fertilizer, reducing the nation’s dependence on imported Peruvian guano.

It was the beginning of large-scale industrial fishing. In Maine alone, more than twenty reduction plants dotted the shoreline, processing the largest, oiliest menhaden (the fish tend to migrate northward as they grow older). But by 1879, as Franklin has documented, menhaden had virtually disappeared from Maine waters, and were scarce along the entire New England coast. As northern factories were boarded up, Reedville became the beating heart of the menhaden reduction industry, with several factories clustered around Virginia’s Northern Neck, scooping up younger menhaden not far from their nursery in the Chesapeake Bay.

In the 1950s, the introduction of spotter planes and hydraulic technology to the fishery resulted in blowout years: 1.5 billion pounds of menhaden were caught in 1956, largely from the Chesapeake Bay and its environs. Ten years later, the catch had declined 70 percent, to 464 million pounds.

These harvest declines, combined with the newfound technological efficiency of the industry, wrought havoc on the culture of menhaden fishing and the landscape of the reduction business. The predominantly African American fishermen who once hauled in nets by hand, coordinating their efforts with a system of lyrical call-and-response, found themselves largely out of work. And the industry became heavily consolidated. By 1997, only two menhaden reduction facilities remained on the East Coast, and by 2005, Omega Protein owned the last factory standing. Over the years, every state along the Eastern Seaboard, with the exception of Virginia and North Carolina, has passed laws prohibiting the industrial reduction business from harvesting menhaden in state waters. But Omega Protein still has free rein where it counts. These days, from May to December, the company’s boats troll the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay and the federal waters that stretch from three to 200 miles off the Maryland, Delaware, and New Jersey shores—the core areas where commercial-scale quantities of menhaden can still be found.

At every moment in this long history, the reduction industry has denied, counterintuitively, that fishing has any impact on the number of menhaden in the Atlantic. A publication of the United States Oil and Guano Association from 1884 asserted, “The plentitude or scarcity of sea fish is wholly independent of the operations of man, but is determined by the forces of nature.” To this day, Omega Protein maintains that menhaden have been subject to a historical pattern of ebbs and flows, driven by external factors like pollution and poor recruitment (the failure of young fish to enter the adult breeding population).

For most of the reduction industry’s history, these arguments didn’t need to carry much weight. Companies didn’t have to answer to regulators; they had only to contend with the occasional legislative annoyance brought on by the grievances of food fishermen and coastal residents who complained about the stink of menhaden smoke. Nobody was conducting stock assessments to determine how many menhaden were left. The prevailing attitude of the time was that there would always be fish in the sea. It wasn’t until 1981 that the ASMFC took responsibility for the little fish and, in the process, thrust itself into the path of a powerful industry.

Chartered by Congress in 1950, the ASMFC was meant to coordinate the management and conservation of migratory species in state waters. Initially this coordination was voluntary. The agency became much stronger with the passage of the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act of 1993, which mandated that states comply with ASMFC decisions. The act also gave the secretary of commerce the ability to impose moratoriums on fisheries in states that were being obstreperous.

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.


  • 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.

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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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