Atlantic menhaden travel in large, slow moving schools with their mouths open wide, and along the way filter a remarkable amount of microscopic plants and animals, including algae, from the water as their food. People no longer eat menhaden, at least not in any recognizable form. However, this little fish is big business here in Virginia where 80% of the total Atlantic catch is brought ashore. In sheer tonnage, more menhaden are caught then all other Atlantic and Gulf fish combined. They are harvested on an industrial scale using a combination of spotter plains, refrigerated ships, huge nets and vacuum pumps. They are then processed into pet food, livestock feed, fish oil supplements and bait for crabs and other fish. They are also reduced into pellets as a primary food source for farm raised fish and shrimp. In the past 25 years, the menhaden population has declined by nearly 90%.
Here in Virginia the management of all fishery stocks is controlled by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, with one exception. Menhaden are controlled by our General Assembly. Some members of the assembly, as well as our current governor, have been the recipient of campaign contributions from Omega Protein, the country's largest processor of menhaden.
If the menhaden population was to become unsustainable, it would not just affect the whales we had come to see. A wide variety of birds and fish eat menhaden, including the popular rockfish, or striped bass, which has recently stabilized from its own brush with overfishing. Another result of menhaden overfishing may already be in evidence. As I mentioned earlier, the menhaden filter great quantities of water for their food, so much so their decline might be one of the reasons for excessive algae growth in the Chesapeake Bay. Fortunately the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted last month to institute the first quota system for menhaden and are starting by agreeing to reduce the harvest by 20%. Omega Proteins would prefer a 10% reduction. It remains to be seen how Virginia's General Assembly will react.