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