(Photo Credit: Maryland Public Television)

Though the critical nature of this issue is deserving of a much lengthier discussion, hopefully our brief article will bring awareness to the near crisis situation facing this important species of fish. Please consider the health of the Menhaden population, and the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem, by taking action in one or all of the following ways: join the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and the Coastal Conservation Association, who are both actively working to save Menhaden populations, call your representative to support Virginia House Bill 822 which attempts to decrease the “total allowable landings for menhaden,” and boycotting products produced by Reedville, VA based Omega Protein, who is the main culprit for the overfishing of Menhaden.

Anyone who spends time fishing in or around the Chesapeake Bay is probably familiar with the abundance of uses for Menhaden. Rarely eaten directly by humans, these fish are used for everything from animal feed to lipstick. However, one of the most common uses for processed Menhaden is as a nutritional supplement, because of the high Omega-3 content. However, where the potential for profit exists, exploitation is not far behind.

Menhaden play a crucial role in the ecosystem of the Chesapeake Bay. According to the Coastal Conservation Association, “they are the foundation of the regional food web, and an abundant source of protein for many important gamefish like striped bass, bluefish, king mackerel and even some tuna species.” Menhaden have been treated like most marine species, on a “single species basis without emphasis on the ecological role” they play in the greater ecosystem, creating a link between phytoplankton and larger predators. If they are fished to, or near extinction, a vital link in the food chain will be removed, having a far-reaching impact on the health of the Chesapeake Bay, including the eventual effects on the top of the food chain, us.

The most common way corporations fish Menhaden is through aerial spotting, and Purse Seine fishing, meaning planes spot schools of fish, and then huge ships use large nets to gather as many fish as possible. There are multiple problems with this. One is that it allows companies to easily overfish a body of water. As a point of reference, 80% of the East Coast Menhaden take happens in the lower Chesapeake Bay. However, companies have so overfished this area, that they are now being pushed seventy miles offshore to find enough Menhaden. According to Jon Haas, conservationist and host of Hoss Off the Grid, and his informative video “Virginia Beach Menhaden, PSA,” the company mainly responsible for this overfishing, Omega Protein, will catch approximately 400,000,000 pounds of Menhaden per year, or 90% of the national annual harvest.

Another critical issue Hoss points out is that these nets do not discriminate between the fish that they catch, and because these ships do not take the other fish on board, they are not counted as caught fish, a loophole in the law. As Menhaden are pumped into the holding tanks of these commercial vessels, water is pumped out. The problem is this water is comprised of fish parts, excrement, and other waste, creating a “biological disaster,” which causes an explosion of bacteria. This is not only done far out to sea, it is also done in inshore waters, areas where families swim and recreate.

How can one company have such a monopoly on the Menhaden market? How can one company be allowed to fish at levels that are clearly destructive to the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem, creating a biological hazard for anyone coming in contact with these waters? The answer is simple…huge profits, and the politicians who protect Omega Protein, because of support they receive through campaign donations. According to the Daily Press, Omega Protein has donated $297,000 to Virginia politicians since 2012, which has probably been part of the reason bills to regulate the Menhaden take have died before they even reach the House floor. Though debate on lowering the Menhaden take has recently come before the General Assembly, there is still quite a bit of resistance from Omega Protein and the politicians they support. Will we stand up and take measures to protect the Chesapeake Bay and its fragile ecosystem, or will we sit idly by while big corporations like Omega continue to rape our local waters?

For further eye opening information on the problem of overfishing Menhaden, please watch the following videos produced by Hoss Off the Grid:

“Virginia Menhaden, PSA”

“Menhaden Management”


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