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What’s for Dinner? (The Oiliest Catch–Part 3)

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 7, 2012

284The modern battle over menhaden began one day in 1997, when a recreational fisherman named Jim Price turned up at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources with a malnourished and diseased striped bass he had caught. A pathologist there speculated that stripers may have gotten “decoupled from their prey,” and Price, who has no scientific training, thought, “What the hell?” But the phrase stuck in his head.

At six o’clock one recent Saturday evening, at a dock on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where sports fishermen bring their catches to be cleaned, Price was scissoring open the bellies of striped bass carcasses. With each dissection, he called out a litany of data, to be noted down by his wife Henrietta: “Thirty inches. Male. Zero body fat. Spleen good. Stomach empty.”

Price is a jeweler and gem dealer by trade, 69 years old, overweight, hunched, with big rimless eyeglasses on a knobby round face. His manner is both plodding and mildly hectoring. Henrietta has learned to fend him off in an endless round of spousal thrust-and-parry. But no one can keep him from talking about either striped bass or menhaden, preferably both, in a relentless monologue punctuated with phrases such as “I’m the only one out there who sees this” or “They don’t understand like I do.” At one point, midway through a dissection, he mentioned that he has cancer of the colon and liver and that his doctor gave him a few months to live, three years ago. Then he cut open the next fish.

A few of the striped bass carcasses that evening had menhaden in their bellies, swallowed whole. One came out ghoulishly half-digested, eyes gone, skin dissolved, muscle just receding from the pearly, translucent tips of its ribs. But most of the 55 fish Price dissected had empty stomachs and zero body fat. And it was his passionate contention, from 10,000 such dissections, summer and winter, that striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay are starving. They are starving, he said, because the reduction industry has fished the menhaden almost down to nothing.

Many of the most familiar Atlantic Coast predators, from bluefish to humpback whales and from pelicans to bald eagles, depend on menhaden. Like herring, sardines, anchovies, and other small, prolific species, menhaden are “forage fish” and vital as prey for other species. Or as a sports fisherman explained to me, “In nature it’s eat or be et, and menhaden are on the ‘be et’ side of the equation.”

fish-infographicWhat’s happening to them also fits what scientists say is a dangerous pattern of overharvesting forage fish and jeopardizing their predators worldwide. Off the coast of Peru this year, for instance, overfishing of anchovies, together with shifting weather patterns, has caused massive die-offs of seabirds and dolphins. In April, the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, a panel of marine and fisheries scientists, called for cutting the catch of forage fish globally by half. It also calculated that forage fish would be worth twice as much to fishermen if they just left them in the water to be eaten by pricier species such as striped bass, cod, or tuna.

The idea that overharvesting little fish starves out the bigger ones is an old complaint. Fishermen in the 1870s actually rioted and burned down a menhaden reduction plant on the coast of Maine because they blamed it for the loss of cod and other valuable species. The same concern for species farther up the food chain has in recent years caused every East Coast state except Virginia to ban the reduction industry within its waters.

The complaining has gotten louder in recent years, partly because of the importance of Chesapeake Bay as a nursing ground for the entire East Coast and partly because some people have begun to question the logic of investing large sums to restore other commercial fish species if there aren’t enough menhaden out there for them to eat. The target for these complaints has also become more obvious: concentration of the industry means that the fate of the Atlantic menhaden may now be determined by a single state and a single corporation, Omega Protein.

People in Reedville, where Omega Protein has 275 employees and a dwindling fleet of just nine boats, tend to return the complaints, times two. “The campaign by conservationists is not about cutting back. It’s not about getting more fish. It’s about getting rid of Omega Protein,” said Jimmy Kellum, who owns two menhaden boats and sells about half his catch to the reduction plant. He fumed a bit as he slapped paint on parts for a new boat he was building. Then he added, “What right does Florida or Maine have to say what we can do with our resource? I know you’re going to say he’s a migratory fish. But he’s mine when he’s in my yard.” If menhaden have been largely absent from New England waters since the early 1990s, it’s not Reedville’s fault, he said. “That’s God’s will, whether he contracts the fishery, or expands the fishery into Maine.”

Read The Halo Effect from Eating Menhaden (The Oiliest Catch–Part 4)

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