Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Menhaden Wars?

Recently, Dick Russell, a fisherman and environmentalist, published Striper Wars, an account of the political and environmental struggles of the 1980s that led to the moratorium on striped bass (rockfish) fishing, and their eventual bounce back to healthy population levels in the 1990s. Something of the epic struggle and ultimate success is known by most of those who have spent significant time by the Bay. After all, Maryland was at the heart of the controversy, being one of the most vociferous proponents of the fishing ban.

With crab and oyster harvests declining, and already dramatically below historical levels, we can at least rest assured that the striper has bounced back. Right? According to Russell, it's absolutely incorrect. Stripers are increasingly threatened, and this time, the culprit is again overfishing, but not the overfishing of stripers. One of the striped bass' primary food sources, a small, oily fish called menhaden is being harvested by the hundreds of millions of pounds per year. As a result, "most of the Bay’s striped bass suffer from poor nutrition and approximately half of the population is infected with the disease, Mycobacteriosis."

Who is the primary culprit? Omega Protein Corp. (slogan: "Healthy Products for a Healthy World"), which is based in Houston, TX and runs its menhaden fishery from Reedville, VA. If we continue to allow these greedy business interests to feed freely at the trough of our commons, the resulting loss of biomass is going to have implications for the Bay's ecology well beyond even our famed striper.

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