An unapologetic plant geek shares advice and opinions on gardening, the contrived and the natural landscape, as well as occasional topics from the other side of the gate.

January 13, 2013

Little Fish and Big Whales

This morning a friend and I ventured onto the foggy cold Atlantic for a whale watching excursion. During the winter months several species of whales can be seen off the coast of Virginia, and reasonably priced trips are sponsored by the Virginia Aquarium.  The most common whales here are humpbacks and fin whales, and what draws them is food in the form of a small oily fish called menhaden.

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.

Three Ships

Rudee Inlet Bridge

Rudee Jetty


Buoy (2)


Sun Over Sea


Blue and Gray

Humpback (2)


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.


  1. Waaaay cool to see a whale in its natural surroundings! Happy New Year to you Les!

  2. These images are splendid Les ! I hope the involved legislators do the right thing, though one continues to have less and less faith in that outcome. Would you mind sharing with us the make and model of your camera ?

  3. Very nice, Les. I saw a Mama whale and her calf on a boat trip off Maui several years ago. A very memorable and exciting experience!

  4. There is a balance to nature that you wonder about when the humans get involved! What a wonderful sight to see those whales!!!

  5. We're utter fools Les. We are stealing from our children ...

  6. Great write up, Les. I really enjoyed the history of Menhaden and the role they play in the ocean and ocean life's balance. Your comment about seeing 15 whales or the same whale 15 times, made me laugh!

  7. Gorgeous images as always Les! I too hope that the right thing can be done and hope that some semblance of balance can be restored.

  8. I hope your assembly sees sense, though if our European fisheries policy is anything to go by, the "needs" of big business all to often sway the voting in favour of short term rather than long term interests.

  9. We had a big menhaden kill in the creek behind the house in VA. I don't remember what caused it. Could have been the fly ash in the water from the landfill from Vepco. Lovely eh?
    I never went on a whale watching tour, what fun.