If you like fish, or even steak or chicken, you’ve likely eaten something that has consumed an Atlantic menhaden. These smallish, oily and bony fish are one of the critical links of the Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay food chains.
Menhaden feed the oceans, but they are also harvested by the ton, ground up, and added to livestock and aquaculture feeds. And their numbers are in decline; maybe as a result of overfishing , or a decline in water quality, or both.
The Washington Post recently ran an informative article on the importance and controversies surrounding the harvests and conservation of this critical fish. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/national/health-science/as-an-essential-atlantic-fish-declines-experts-debate-course/2011/07/29/gIQAC3vNmI_story.html.
Why though, would a river and wetland restoration company have an interest in what has been called the“most important fish in the ocean?” Barry Commoner, one of the pioneers in ecosystem revitalization put it best when he noted that “everything is connected to everything else.” The decline of the menhaden is a relevant example for Commoner’s four laws of ecology, as written in The Closing Circle in 1971. And we should all have an interest int hese laws. The four laws are:
1. Everything is connected to everything else. There is one ecosphere for all living organisms and what affects one, affects all.
As the Atlantic menhaden go, so do numerous other species, including popular sport and eating fish as the rockfish (Striped Bass), bluefish, swordfish, king mackeral, tuna and wildlife such as loons, and other predatory shore birds like eagles and osprey. Many of these species populate the tidal streams, rivers and riparian areas in the Chesapeake Bay region. We understand and embrace the philosophy that “everything is connected to everything else.”
2. Everything must go somewhere. There is no “waste” in nature and there is no “away” to which things can be thrown.
According to biologists, menhaden feed on the phytoplankton that “contribute to algae blooms and oxygen-depleted dead zones” that have become epically large in the Chesapeake Bay. It has been documented that these “dead zones” are directly attributed to nutrient overloads in the Bay. THI, through its ecosystem-based, holistic planning philosophy, advocates for a reduction in the amount of nutrient and sediment runoff entering the Bay.
3. Nature knows best. Humankind has fashioned technology to improve upon nature, but such change in a natural system is, says Commoner, “likely to be detrimental to that system.”
THI’s philosophy is to take a light-handed approach to the restoration of aquatic ecosystems. We like to say “we help nature help herself.” Nature knows best, but we must remove or mitigate the disturbances that impact these systems, while sometimes giving nature a little boost toward renewal and repair.
4. There is no such thing as a free lunch. Exploitation of nature will inevitably involve the conversion of resources from useful to useless forms.
There might be a short-term free lunch if the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission doesn’t act properly. But the bill will come, eventually. According to the Washington Post, the Omega Protein corporation accounts for 80 percent of all menhaden harvests. The other 20 percent are small, local fishermen who sell their catch for sport fishing bait.
According to the Post, “thirteen coastal states, from Maine to Florida under the commission’s jurisdiction have banned Omega Protein from harvesting menhaden in state waters with its huge ships and large purse seine nets. Only Virginia allows thecompany full access to its waters in the Atlantic and the Chesapeake Bay. North Carolina gives very limited access. Virginia also stands alone in managing its menhaden fishery from an unusual place,the state General Assembly.”
Virginia’s reluctance to restrict the menhaden harvest may have something to do with the location of Omega Protein’s largest menhaden processing plant -Virginia.
Will the Chesapeake Bay change from a “useful to useless form?” There are many dedicated, impassioned individuals, organizations and companies that are working to prevent such an outcome. As we move forward in our efforts to restore the Bay, may we all keep environmentalist Aldo Leopold’s succinct observation in mind. Leopold, the author of “A Sand County Almanac” wrote, “To keep every cog and wheel is the first precaution of intelligent tinkering.” That would include even the small, oily menhaden.
Author Doug Pickford of Trout Headwaters, Inc. (THI), an environmental planner with 20 years of experience in the Chesapeake Bay area, follows events in the bay watershed as the tide turns from voluntary to mandatory for bay cleanup regulations and protections. Doug’s blog series for THI will document what is likely the largest and most significant watershed clean up effort in the history of the U.S., and offer his insights into some practical ways to assist the health of this magnificent natural resource.