The beating heart of the estuary

Demand for fish oil puts the Chesapeake under increasing pressure.


lithograph of a menhaden fish. Courtesy NOAACourtesy NOAA

During the early 1900s, Reedville, Virginia, boasted the highest per capita income of any community in America. Today, it remains the nation’s third-largest fishing port in terms of pounds landed – 375.3 million pounds in 2003, almost exclusively menhaden. Fish meal and oil rendered from menhaden together constitute nearly 40 percent of the total US fish export volume annually. Reedville’s Omega Protein Corporation is the most productive nongovernmental fish processing facility in the world.

Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus), bony, oily, inedible members of the herring family, were once simply ubiquitous from Florida to Nova Scotia, because their food source – phytoplankton, the microscopic plants that support the ocean food chain – is so widespread. Menhaden move in vast schools, their mouths agape to consume huge quantities of phytoplankton. They are a critical species in the flow of energy and nutrients, silvery sea-strainers that improve water quality and hold down algae growth. The capacity of menhaden to “filter” phytoplankton is unmatched by any other fish species.

They are also a remarkable commodity. As Rachel Carson once put it, “Almost every person in the United States has at some time eaten, used, or worn something made from menhaden.” It’s in Rustoleum and Pepperidge Farm shortcake cookies and Soothing Seas Aromatherapy body cream. The oil has been used in the manufacturing of soap, linoleum, and certain kinds of paint.

By World War II, due to menhaden’s 60 percent protein content, the fishery’s primary product had become fish meal for poultry and swine feed.
Government records show that the numbers of menhaden went from 8.1 billion fish during the late 1950s to a “severely depressed condition” of less than 3.9 billion fish in the 1960s.

In Reedville, menhaden is still king. The fetid smell emanating from the factory stacks after a night’s “cooking” of the catch is, the locals shrug, simply “the smell of money.”

My closest view of Omega Protein’s operation came on a Sunday in July 2004 from the deck of Ferrell McLain’s 42-foot charter boat.
I count 10 battleship-gray vessels, each about 170 feet long, former fleet supply ships that the company purchased from the US military. Early Monday morning, these boats will all be out on courses charted for them by the company’s spotter planes. The fish feed in schools so large that they’re detectable on the surface. Once the fish are sighted, a vessel will lower two boats carrying a 1,500-foot-long seine net. As they approach the fish, the boats separate and crew members pay out the net as they encircle the menhaden, then close or “purse” it. Hydraulic power blocks bring the net aboard, at which point a “steamer” ship comes alongside, lowers a giant vacuum hose, and pumps the fish into its refrigerated hold. A single setting of a seine may corral up to 300,000 menhaden.

Shore-side, the fish are pumped out into the processing plant, where the day’s catch is cooked and separated into fish oil and solids. The solids are then dried into various grades of fish meal.

I’d hoped to see the operation firsthand, but Omega Protein executives turned down my request. One of the vessel captains told me: “I don’t know what’s going on. They told us last year we could take anyone out on the boats. I’m an ol’ country boy who’d like to show somebody what we do. But it’s been a total turnaround. I’m not privileged to do a whole lot of talking.”

On the outskirts of Reedville, the company was nearing completion of a new $17 million fish oil refinery. It will be able to process an additional 100 metric tons of fish per day, tripling the existing production capacity. While the largest market remains meal for the animal feed industry, Omega Protein is also the world’s biggest manufacturer of liquid fish protein for aquaculture.

In 1989, the US Food and Drug Administration ruled that fully and partially hydrogenated menhaden oil is also a safe ingredient for human consumption.

A single setting of a seine may corral up to 300,000 menhaden.

In 1997, the same status was extended to refined menhaden oil. This means that not only is the oil a new ingredient in jars of spaghetti sauce and sticks of margarine, but a whole new health food and nutritional supplement market has opened up. In November 2002, the American Heart Association recommended that Americans consume fish oil daily, because omega-3 fatty acids appear to help protect against cardiovascular disease. Omega Protein has cornered the market. Currently, the company produces about 40,000 tons of meal and 20,000 tons of oil a year. Its fish oil sales in 2002 helped Omega boost its business by 18.5 percent, to an annual $117 million.

The company has a long and curious history. It is 60 percent owned by the Zapata Corporation, originally an oil-and-gas operation started in 1953 by former president George H. W. Bush. Some believe that Zapata’s offshore oil rigs were used as a staging ground for the Bay of Pigs invasion, which within CIA circles was known as “Operation Zapata” and whose landing ships were named Houston (Bush’s domicile) and Barbara (his wife). Coincidence? Perhaps, but long after Bush sold Zapata in the mid-1960s, six years of filings on his later years with the firm were “accidentally” destroyed by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC) after he became vice president in 1980.

In the early 1990s, soon after the FDA’s decision to approve menhaden oil for human consumption in the first year of the elder Bush’s presidency, a multimillionaire named Malcolm Glazer started accumulating shares in Zapata.

Zapata is a publicly traded holding company, about half of it owned by Glazer and his offspring. Early in 1998, not long after another favorable FDA decision on menhaden oil as a good source of omega-3, Zapata’s share value nearly doubled following word that it planned to spin off Zapata Protein and rename it Omega Protein. By late 2003, Zapata’s only source of income was its 60 percent stake in Omega, and its value on the New York Stock Exchange had soared 184 percent in a little over a year.

Meanwhile, the SEC was said to be taking a look at the inner workings of both companies. An investigation by BusinessWeek, reported in its March 15, 2004, issue, “raises serious questions about whether sudden increases in the value of Zapata Corp. and Omega Protein Corp. were orchestrated… Spikes in stock prices of both came after curious buyout offers.” Bidding for Omega was a company nobody had ever heard of, Ferrari Investments, from a sleepy coastal village in Argentina. Bidding for Zapata was a would-be corporate raider named Theodore Roxford, who later admitted he “might have been acting” on Glazer’s behalf.

We’ll take menhaden

The joining of protectionism with recreational fishing has gained ground in recent years. The two camps are now working to severely restrict, if not close, menhaden fishing grounds.

Omega Protein raises the point that a Virginia sector of the Chesapeake Bay is pretty much the only menhaden-rich territory it’s still allowed to fish. Maryland outlawed menhaden seining in its waters nearly 50 years ago. In more recent times, under pressure from sports fishermen, various state legislatures along the Atlantic coast have evicted Omega’s “steamers” from their inshore waters.

What Omega doesn’t say is that, as far back as 1965, the menhaden reduction fishery began concentrating its efforts in the Chesapeake.
Consider the reported landings of menhaden in Reedville: 488 million pounds in 2001, 382 million pounds in 2002, 375 million pounds in 2003. “That’s equivalent to more than a thousand pickup-truck loads of fish a day,” says Jim Price, senior scientist at Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution. “It’s equal to five times the amount of seafood that the entire Maryland commercial fishery is able to land – counting oysters, clams, fish, everything. One company, one fishing operation.”

While spawning occurs mainly at sea, menhaden larvae are transported by ocean currents into the estuaries. They use the bay as a nursery during the first year of life. In recent years, recruitment – the number of new menhaden hatched into the fishery – has plummeted.

Menhaden processing. Photo NOAAPhoto NOAA

Between 1975 and 1991, average recruitment was estimated at about 4.4 billion fish a year. By 2001, recruitment was calculated at some 500 million, the lowest figure ever recorded.

The menhaden industry claims it’s not their operation, but overabundant striped bass that is responsible for depleting the menhaden. It’s undeniable that the fishery and the fish are competing for the same resource. And the bass may have more effect on the menhaden population than anyone thought. But the fact is, Omega Protein (along with the Menhaden Resource Council and the National Fish Meal and Oil Association) has, on at least one occasion, done its best to block scientific examination of the food web in the Chesapeake.

Back in 1994, the Virginia Marine Resources Council (VMRC) was considering a proposal, backed by the nonprofit Chesapeake Bay Foundation and to be funded through recreational license fees, to explore the repercussions on other fish species of the commercial taking of menhaden in the bay. “We got our ass handed to us, on what should have been a slam dunk,” the foundation’s fisheries program manager, Bill Goldsborough, recalls. “Because the industry opposed it, the commissioners caved in.”

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) does have a fishery management plan for menhaden, first approved in 1981 and twice revised since. For years, however, its Menhaden Management Board was dominated by representatives from the industry. It was the only such ASMFC board that allowed industry members a direct vote in the decisions. In 2001, both the board and the technical committee were finally restructured. Some recent signs suggest that the group may take a harder look at what the industry is doing to menhaden stocks, and at those repercussions.

equal to five times the amount of seafood that the entire Maryland
commercial fishery is able to land…One company, one fishing

As late as the ASMFC’s annual meeting in December 2003, however, the modelers were maintaining that the coastwide Atlantic menhaden population was “not overfished, and overfishing is not occurring.” They maintained, too, that it was simply impossible to isolate what might otherwise be happening in the Chesapeake Bay, where nearly two-thirds of that Atlantic catch originated. Meanwhile, other marine scientists were beginning to question the numbers of the menhaden technical committee.

According to Desmond Kahn, Chair of the Delaware Division of Fish and Wildlife, “Some scientific research suggests that forage species like menhaden need to be fished at a lower level than managers might think, to allow for their high natural mortality [from disease and predation].”
In the summer of 2004, Jim Uphoff, a biologist with the Department of

Natural Resources, was finishing an analysis of the National Marine Fisheries Service’s menhaden stock assessment. Uphoff’s conclusion? The assessment is “grossly wrong.” He explains: “The big thing is, for as important a species as menhaden are, there is virtually no monitoring of the population.

“Everything is run off of catch data. But what you’ve got is what’s known as ’inverse catchability.’ In other words, as the population goes down, the fishery becomes more and more efficient. They take a larger fraction [of menhaden] per shot. Because these guys aren’t out fishing randomly. They have airplanes and, when they set a net, they set it on a school of the right magnitude. That would indicate that the fishing mortality rates on menhaden are going way up, as opposed to going way down.”

Other marine scientists argue that Uphoff’s concern about “inverse catchability” would be applicable only if all menhaden were in the Chesapeake. To get an accurate picture we would need to have good population and migration information and then be able to measure accurately rates of local depletion.

Still, at long last, due to the unprecedented demand from environmental and fishing groups that something be done, the ASMFC began to take notice. This came on the heels of a March 2004 meeting at which an interstate panel of scientists concluded that current menhaden management measures were inadequate.

Then, in October 2004, the ASMFC convened a three-day scientific workshop on menhaden in Arlington, Virginia. At the close of the proceedings, recommendations for action were supposed to take place. Since Omega’s boats took five times the biomass of menhaden in May 2004 than they had the previous May – coinciding with the time when striped bass were spawning in the Chesapeake – it was suggested by Bill Goldsborough, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s representative, that the menhaden fishing season be delayed a month, until June 1. Goldsborough also said that it would be prudent to place a cap on the current level of menhaden harvest, perhaps at an average of the past five years.

The industry’s response was swift. Lawyers for Omega Protein threatened a lawsuit against the ASMFC should the managing body seek to restrict the menhaden catch in the bay.

“The big thing is, for as important a species as menhaden are, there is virtually no monitoring of the population.”

The science presented during the workshop convinced Ken Hinman of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation (NCMC) that, more than ever, something needed to be done quickly to curtail the menhaden harvest. Yet no scientist was willing to make specific recommendations. Angler and environmental groups responded to the lack of movement by forming a new alliance called Menhaden Matter. Spokespeople from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, the Coastal Conservation Association, Environmental Defense, and the NCMC gathered at a press conference on October 26, 2004, to release a case study demanding immediate proactive measures to protect “the most important fish in the sea,” and insisting that the ASMFC “lay the foundation for an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management in the future.” The industry retaliated by setting up a website of its own – Menhaden Facts – seeking to disparage the new coalition

What the industry wants most – a booming market for its products – may not necessarily come to pass. According to National Fisherman, “On the industrial side of the fishery, where menhaden is processed into feed for poultry and pigs, the demand for fish is depressed by a surplus of soy, which serves the same purpose.” All that ground-up menhaden, it seems, could be readily replaced by ground-up soybeans. As for omega-3 products for human consumption, other companies are already seeking ways to produce these from alternative sources, such as algae.

While the ASMFC’s menhaden board decided that no additional management measures were necessary at its November 2004 meeting, the board agreed to have scientists look into claims that “localized depletion” might be occurring in the Chesapeake Bay. Some members of the technical committee were, in fact, slowly coming around to Price’s conclusion that the resurgent striper population’s impact on the menhaden had not been properly factored into its menhaden population modeling.

At last, in February 2005, the menhaden board overwhelmingly approved development of an addendum to their management plan that would place a 110,400-metric-ton cap (an average of the last five years’ landings) on the menhaden fishery’s Chesapeake Bay catch in 2006 and 2007. The board also proposed beginning an immediate research program to examine the menhaden’s status in the bay and to consider other fishing constraints during the six-month addendum process. Larry Simns, president of the Maryland Watermen’s Association, told the menhaden board: “I hate to go against my [Virginia] watermen brethren, but I think it’s the right thing to do.” Maryland Governor Robert Ehrlich affirmed his state’s commitment “to being a leader in menhaden management in the Chesapeake Bay as these filter-feeding fish are vital to its sustainability.” For his part, Price has decided to petition the National Marine Fisheries Service for designation of Atlantic menhaden as a “threatened” species.

Menhaden fishing boat at sea. Photo NOAAPhoto NOAA

It’s about a five-hour drive from Reedville back up Virginia’s Northern Neck, across the Bay Bridge, and south again down Maryland’s Eastern Shore to the little town of Oxford. There, from his picture window, Price casts his gaze beyond the backyard at the Choptank River flowing past his wooden dock.

“I should be able to look out this time of year and see schools of menhaden with terns working them. I haven’t seen a one. This river’s just about dead,” he says.

Joe Boone has just arrived, driving down from his farm a couple of hours away on the western shore. Jim Uphoff lives in nearby Easton, and our plan is to meet him at the dock where Price keeps his boat.

Loading the gear into Price’s 28-foot Bertram, the three of us head out onto the Choptank River.

We’re bound for Tilghman Island, about eight miles down the river toward its mouth, site of one of the last remaining large-scale charter-boat and commercial fishing centers in the upper bay.

For a moment, all feels timeless. A few gulls soar overhead. “There used to be thousands,” Price says.

There are no signs of fish. No birds, no bait, no fish. Joe Boone puts his fishing rod back in a holder and muses: “You know, menhaden filtered out millions of tons of algae, turned it into flesh, and went out of the bay with it. That’s how the bay evolved over 10,000 years or so.
Now that the oysters are gone, too, all of a sudden you don’t have anything removing these massive volumes of algae, which of course is made even worse by increased fertilization from agriculture. The algae dying contributes to another problem, oxygen depletion
in the water, which means fish start to suffocate. This was finely tuned by nature, but it’s like removing one little pin and then the whole system startsto collapse.”

As we head back toward the dock, I am left pondering how Bill Goldsborough of the Chesapeake Bay Foundation recently summarized the situation. “You’ve got the menhaden industry harvesting hundreds of millions of pounds out of the bay, of a filter feeder that should be eating algae,” he says. “Then the menhaden are being ground up and processed into a feed that’s going to chickens. The chickens are producing all this manure and nitrogen that ends up back in the water, stimulating more algae growth. And that can stimulate disease outbreaks – the prime victim of which is menhaden!”

The intricate web that nature has woven into and around the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem – where what happens to algae, menhaden, striped bass, and chickens is all interrelated – human practices can rapidly rend asunder.

Writer Dick Russell is author of Striper Wars; An American Fish Story (Island Press, 2005), from which this article was excerpted.

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