Menhaden fish. Cross-posted from Gilt Taste.

On a bright morning in May, a calm Chesapeake Bay glitters in the sun, an expanse of blue, the nation’s largest and once most productive estuary. A sudden commotion shatters the serenity: Dozens of gulls swoop toward the 135-foot ship Reedville, and the water beneath the boat begins to churn and froth. With two smaller boats at its side, the Reedville encloses a school of fish in a stiff black purse seine net. With practiced efficiency, workers onboard hoist a vacuum pump into the net and suck tens of thousands of small silvery fish out of the water. It looks like an unusual way to catch fish; it’s all the more unusual when you realize that this particular industrial catch is actually banned by every state on the East Coast. Every state, that is, save for one: Virginia.

The fish going up the tube are Atlantic menhaden, known to ocean ecologists as the “breadbasket of the ocean,” though some prefer to call them “the most important fish in the sea.” Because there’s money to be made, menhaden, all the fish that rely on them for food, and the entire ocean ecosystem are in trouble.

Found in estuarine and coastal waters from Nova Scotia to Florida, menhaden are oily, bony, and inedible to humans, which is why you’ve probably never heard of them. But their nutrient-packed bodies are a staple food for dozens of fish species you have heard of, as well as marine mammals and sea birds. Located near the bottom of the food chain, menhaden are the favored prey for many important predators, including striped bass and bluefish, tuna and dolphin, seatrout and mackerel.

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Out on the bay, the vacuum pump on the Reedville removes 45,000 menhaden from the water. This is a small catch for a boat that routinely takes multiple schools, each of which can contain as many as a million members, stored in a giant hold below deck. There, they will wait for the ship to return to its namesake, Reedville, a remote town on Virginia’s northern neck peninsula, where they will be cooked, ground up, and sold. This is the “menhaden reduction” process, the basis for a lucrative industry controlled, on the East Coast, by exactly one company: Omega Protein, Inc.

The same oily property that makes menhaden so valuable to marine life can also be used for aquaculture and livestock feed, pet food, oil for paints and cosmetics, and as a component in dietary supplements. Omega Protein’s annual harvest is worth more than $168 million. Revenues for 2011 are projected at $218 million. Because of Omega Protein, Reedville is the third largest commercial fishing port in the United States.

Some scientists believe that menhaden could be a partial solution to pollution and the oxygen-depleted areas of water called, bluntly, “dead zones.” In these zones, pollution-related algae blooms use up the oxygen in the water, making it difficult for other species to live; it’s a particular problem in estuaries like the Chesapeake Bay and the Long Island Sound, where menhaden were once plentiful. Menhaden are filter feeders, swimming with their mouths open and straining phytoplankton (algae) and other particles with their gills. While the exact content of what menhaden filter varies by location and season, it is clear that menhaden have been removing damaging particles from our waters since time immemorial.

“Menhaden are the main herbivore in the ocean that eat phytoplankton, and without them, we have a problem,” says Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist at the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

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Goldsborough and other fisheries scientists are concerned about diminishing numbers of menhaden along the Atlantic coast. Recent evidence shows that menhaden stocks are down 88 percent in the last 25 years, to a record low — from 160 billion fish to 20 billion. Atlantic menhaden harvesters have regularly overfished their target limit: 32 of the last 54 years, according to a 2010 stock assessment by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the regulatory agency in charge of managing the sustainability of forage species like menhaden.

One sign that points to the scale of the problem is that species like striped bass that normally feed on menhaden are displaying symptoms of malnourishment and disease. Seatrout are near their lowest population point on record, in part because of a lack of menhaden. When faced with the loss of both seatrout and menhaden as food, striped bass have been turning to other cherished delicacies. “Striped bass will feed on blue crabs and lobsters when they can’t get enough menhaden. We are seeing increased mortality of juvenile lobster and blue crabs,” Goldsborough says.

Scientists say Omega Protein removes menhaden at a rate that makes it nearly impossible for the fish to provide the valuable ecosystem services that give them their vaunted title. The annual removal of adult fish is 65 percent or higher, making it unlikely that an adult menhaden will spawn more than once, if at all. Scientists say that this affects the health and sustainability of our natural resources: “[Overfishing] is certainly affecting menhaden, not just in Maryland but coastwide, and therefore it affects the predator populations as well that rely on menhaden. There is no doubt about that. We are competing with the predators,” says Alexei Sharov, head of the stock assessment program at Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service.

The vast majority of menhaden are netted off the Virginia coast in the Chesapeake Bay and at Cape Henry, where the Bay meets the ocean. This is because all the states along the Atlantic coast have banned industrial menhaden fishing, with the exception of Virginia. (North Carolina banned fishing for menhaden reduction, but still allows a much smaller menhaden harvest for fishing bait.) Menhaden fishing boats like Reedville are out in the Virginia waters of the Bay almost every day from May to December, the state-sanctioned fishing season.

Why does Virginia allow it? Like many things, it all goes back to politics.  

Omega Protein has been a generous and frequent financier of both Democratic and Republican legislators in Virginia. Decades ago, management of marine life in state waters was transferred from the Virginia Marine Resources Commission to the Virginia General Assembly, which has management authority over all species except one: menhaden.

Repeated legislative efforts to transfer control of menhaden to the capable hands of fisheries experts have proven futile. Omega Protein has furnished Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell (R) with over $55,745 in campaign contributions. The governor has signaled that he will veto any menhaden bill he encounters.

In 2011, six different bills were introduced in the Virginia legislature concerning the protection of menhaden, with six different sponsors, spanning the House and the Senate, and spearheaded by members of both sides of the aisle. All were defeated handily.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which has oversight of state waters, is poised to take regulatory action that would increase the percentage of menhaden that is off-limits to harvesters from 9 to 15 percent. But even this feels like a stopgap measure. A recent panel of independent scientists recommended that as much as 75 percent of virgin biomass for species like menhaden be kept from the hands (and nets) of industrial fisheries. Virgin biomass is a term that describes the amount of fish in the water before humans ever started fishing there, so the amount of menhaden that these scientists are recommending be left alone is enormous.

And if the menhaden population continu
es to decline, it would have far-reaching ramifications. In addition to the devastating environmental impact, dozens of different industries also rely on menhaden, from the charter boat captains who take sport fishermen out on the open water all along the Atlantic coast, to the bait industry that supplies menhaden to the commercial and recreational fishermen who catch millions of pounds of fish each year that seafood lovers like to eat.

“Menhaden are a keystone species in the marine ecosystem of the Atlantic coast,” Goldsborough says. “Anybody that cares about the ocean along this coast should care about menhaden.”