Features

May/June 2012 A Fish Story

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

By Alison Fairbrother

One of the anglers who typically showed up at ASMFC meetings to bend the ears of commissioners was Jim Price, who began his solitary study of striped bass carcasses in 1997. On occasion, Price would also go fishing with a marine biologist he knew from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, a burly guy by the name of Jim Uphoff.

Uphoff runs the Fisheries Habitat and Ecosystem Programs for the state of Maryland. In the late ’90s, he was working in and around the Chesapeake Bay as it was facing an incipient environmental disaster:striped bass from the estuary and its rivers were showing up with oozing red lesions on their flesh, and fishermen were demanding answers from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources. Uphoff was party to his fishing buddy Jim Price’s theory about the cause of this outbreak—that a growing striped bass population plus declining menhaden stocks left the stripers hungry, malnourished, weak, and chomping on other marine creatures that weren’t optimal sources of energy.

Uphoff was skeptical at first—afflicted, he admits, with a mentality common to fishery managers: “How can you have a problem finding food? The ocean is so big.” But new discoveries in bioenergetics, the study of how fish process energy from different food sources, eventually convinced him to take Price’s theories more seriously.

Looking harder into the ASMFC’s data, he noticed two things. First, the spawning potential “reference point” that the ASMFC set for menhaden was low compared to that of many other fish. Striped bass, for example, were only allowed to be fished down to 35 percent of maximum spawning potential. Second, the model the Menhaden Technical Committee used to derive the spawning potential estimate seemed overly complex and heavily dependent on industry-supplied data. So he devised a model that was simpler and could account for the impact of various predators on the menhaden stock.

In 2003, Uphoff went down to the NOAA lab in Beaufort to present his alternative in front of the scientists who had designed the one currently in use. When he ran his model, it showed that overfishing was occurring. The NOAA scientists, he says, were unimpressed. “Basically I was dead in the water in five minutes,” he recalls.

Meanwhile, interest in the menhaden problem was building among national environmental groups, many of whom learned about it from a 2001 article in Discover magazine by Rutgers historian H. Bruce Franklin. (Franklin was an avid angler himself and knew of Jim Price’s work.) By 2004, a coalition of anglers and environmentalists were demanding that the ASMFC adopt a harvest cap on menhaden fished from the Chesapeake Bay. The effort got some publicity in July 2005, when Greenpeace activists kayaked out to Cockrell Creek in front of Omega Protein’s Reedville factory and unfurled a splashy yellow banner that read “Factory Fishing is Overkill.”

In a vote later that year, the ASMFC agreed to implement a harvest cap. But the cap amount was calculated based on the average harvest from Omega Protein’s previous five years of fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. In other words, Omega wouldn’t sacrifice a single fish. Coalition leaders considered it to be the best they could get at the time—at least there was a check on the company’s activities for the first time in history. But others in the conservation community were not so happy. Tom Fote, an ASMFC commissioner from New Jersey and an ally of conservation, called it an “imaginary cap.”

Even an imaginary cap, it turned out, was too much for Virginia. In January 2006, Bob McDonnell, in his first month as Virginia’s newly elected attorney general, wrote a legal brief explaining that Virginia was not mandated to comply with the ASMFC’s decision. Documents I obtained show that this brief was based on a paper written by Shaun Gehan, then of Collier Shannon Scott, a law firm representing Omega Protein at the time. The state ultimately ended up complying the following year after a series of negotiations between Omega Protein, the ASMFC, and the state legislature.

While the ASMFC has proved itself deeply resistant to any action that might seriously affect Omega’s bottom line, it has also shown itself capable, at times, of making the sort of tough policy decision that can change the Atlantic marine world for the better. In 1982, the population of striped bass declined to fewer than 5 million fish. Overfishing and habitat degradation were threatening the existence of the species. The state of Maryland issued a five-year moratorium on striped bass fishing, turning the nursery and spawning-ground waters of the Chesapeake Bay into a kind of striper sanctuary. Soon, through the coordinated efforts of the ASMFC, the rest of the Atlantic states followed suit. Within a few years, the population came roaring back.

In 2007, there were 56 million stripers swimming around the Atlantic and its estuaries, gobbling up crabs, herring, and, of course, menhaden. Ecologists and anglers see this as a great success story and an argument for a more ecologically minded strategy of resource management. The reduction industry and its allies see things differently. One of Omega Protein’s closed-door arguments to the ASMFC was that anglers should be allowed to fish down the striped bass population, as that would remove a major competitor for menhaden, leaving more fish in the water for Omega Protein to catch.

Each year, Omega Protein scoops up between a quarter and a half a billion pounds of menhaden—as much as all of the ninety-nine factories that were operating in 1876 combined. More than half of Omega Protein’s sales come from exports abroad, with Asia and Europe representing the largest markets in a growing international aquaculture industry. Because it can take up to seven pounds of fish meal for a farmed specimen like salmon to put on one pound of body weight, Omega is capitalizing on a business model whereby menhaden are extracted from a wild ecosystem to fuel a much less efficient artificial one.

This vast protein extraction machine supports surprisingly few American jobs. A 2010 study by the economist James Kirkley at the Virginia Institute of Marine Resources found that the reduction industry has an $88 million economic impact on the Chesapeake Bay region, supplying 300 jobs at Omega Protein during the peak fishing season and 219 jobs in ancillary industries supported by the fishery. Recreational fishing, by comparison, has a $332 million economic impact in Virginia and Maryland, supporting 3,500 jobs, from bait and tackle shops to manufacturers of fishing equipment to charter-boat owners and captains—all of whom have an indirect stake in the health of the menhaden population.

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:

    Nice article, thanks for the information.

    Anna @ sewa mobil jakarta

  • 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.

  • High PR Backlink Pyramid on September 05, 2012 9:42 PM:

    Do you have a spam issue on this site; I also am a blogger, and I was wanting to know your situation; many of us have developed some nice procedures and we are looking to exchange solutions with other folks, why not shoot me an e-mail if interested.