Menhaden, Blue Back Crabs, and the Environment

A long time ago, I was told that any story has three (3) sides: the two opposing sides and the truth. The truth usually falls somewhere in between!

Seminar VII to the Northern Neck and Tangier Island shed light on the longstanding debate between environmental protection and economic growth. Our first stop at the Omega plant demystify the modern fish oil business in ways I would have never imagined. With whaling going out of fashion, the hunt for alternative livelihoods took shape. The commercial fishing industry in the Northern Next took off and at the heart of this business was the menhaden fish. Menhaden are filter feeders, capable of filtering large quantities of water. Thus, they play an important role in filtering the Chesapeake Bay which for years has been subject to pollution from agricultural runoffs and nutrient cycling. As a forage species, they are also a critical source of food for larger fish species. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation (CBF), menhaden are a vital link in the Chesapeake Bay’s food web for fish, marine mammals, and birds.

On the other hand, menhaden fishery is economically important to the Northern Neck. According to Omega, although the fish is too small, boney, and oily for human consumption, the fish is an important ingredient in fertilizers, animal feed, cosmetics, bait, and fish oil for human and animal supplements. This makes menhaden harvesting the main employment opportunity in the Northern Neck. Employment includes the boat crews, spotter plane pilots, plant workers, many others involved in the horizontal and vertical integration of the commercial fish industry.

While there is agreement that harvesting menhaden needs to be economically feasible and environmentally sound, the age-old standoff between the environmentalist and the commercial fishing industry regarding what constitutes sustainable harvesting marches on. Based on the 2015 benchmark stock assessment, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) who is responsible for regulating harvest notes that menhaden are not overfished.

So, where is the problem? For environmentalists and the suspecting public, the sheer scale of menhaden harvesting suggests otherwise. In a video presentation by Omega, the company showed just how menhaden are harvested. It includes spotter planes that radio the location of a menhaden school to the main fishing vessel. Equip with two small swift boats, the main fishing vessel swoops in and launches the two smaller swift boats each carrying an end of a huge net. The smaller boats encircle the entire school of fish with the net and tighten the enclosure. Once the encirclement is secured, a huge vacuum sucks the fish from the net into the main vessel. For anyone seeing this for the first time, myself included, it appears that all if not the majority of the fish in the school (easily in the millions) is captured. Thus, the general perception is that the menhaden are being overfished and thus impacting the cleaning of the Chesapeake Bay and the other ecosystem services provided.

Whether the menhaden are overfished in anyone’s guess. As the debate rages on, the need to balance environmental protection with economic growth remains vitally important. This is easier said than done as the overarching question as to what constitutes environmentally sound, socially equitable, economically feasible remains a contentious issue.

Growing up in Guyana, crab catching was a favorite pastime. During the annual mating season (August-September), the spring tide brings the crabs onto the Atlantic coast. In Guyana, these crabs are called bundari. However, our visit to Tangier Island brought into focus a different crab – the blue back crab. Interestingly, I grew up catching this crab also albeit in a less sophisticated way. In Guyana, the blue back crab is called a sherriger. My brother and I used the intestines of chickens to bait a hook to catch sherrigers. When the crab latched onto the bait, we would slowly pull the line to the surface and use a bucket to collect the crab. In the waters off Tangier Island in the Chesapeake Bay, crabbing is much more than a favorite pastime and the crab traps used are far more involved. It is a way of life and the major source of income. However, this industry and the livelihoods of the crabbers are affected by the health of the Chesapeake Bay and stringent regulations. Agricultural runoffs are affecting the feeding grounds and habitats of the blue back crabs while annual quotas are restricting the number of blue back crabs that can be caught. Here again, is the age-old battle between conservation efforts and economic livelihoods. As the Mayor of Tangier Island relates, the blue back crab population is healthy and the crabs are being harvested sustainably.

If the restriction on crabbing was not enough to worry about, the erosion of the island is a top concern. Without adaptation efforts, it is feared that the entire island could be gone in 50 years. Since the mid-nineteenth century, more than half of the island has been lost to erosion and rising sea levels. Thus, we don’t have to travel very far to understand the effects of rising seas. The construction of sea walls made from rocks has been used to prevent further erosion in some areas and according to the Mayor, it is working well. However, other areas of the island are in dire need of sea defense work but as usual, there is a lack of funding.


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