Old School Film Hack

Menhaden — the lifeblood of the Chesapeake


Do you see them?  In the image above, they’re disturbing the water in a small area midway between the dock and the far shore.  What are they?  Atlantic Menhaden… the lifeblood of the Chesapeake Bay.

Atlantic menhaden

Atlantic menhaden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Without menhaden to form the base of the food pyramid, pretty much all the other aquatic life within the Chesapeake would succumb or leave.  And due to menhaden being overfished here for the majority of the past 54 years, their count within the Bay has plummeted to historic lows.  So low, in fact — an 88 percent decline in the past 25 years alone — that all the states in the Mid-Atlantic region have instituted strict fishing laws protecting them.  All except Virginia.  Virginia still allows the Omega Protein fishing fleet to hoover them up within their state boundary of the Chesapeake.

Therein lies the rub… the menhaden don’t know anything about political boundaries and go wherever their food source is to be found.  And when their vast schools swim past the Maryland border, they face the following juggernaut… just waiting for their arrival:

Menhaden fishing - purse seine boats encirclin...

Menhaden fishing – purse seine boats encircling a school of menhaden (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

  • A spotter plane flies throughout the area to find schools of menhaden. The plane then radios the location of the menhaden school to the factory ship.
  • The factory ship travels over to the school spotted by the plane and coordinates two smaller vessels to collect the catch.
  • The smaller boats encircle the menhaden while dragging a purse seine net, trapping them in the process.
  • The factory ship approaches the smaller vessels with the trapped school and begins vacuuming on board all the menhaden within the net.
  • The vessels return to the dock where the harvested menhaden are unloaded for processing.

Don’t believe me?  Check out the images here.  The fish don’t stand a chance.  The hoovering of the menhaden is so thorough and effective that NOAA states they “constitute the largest landings, by volume, along the Atlantic Coast. They rank second in the United States for landings behind only pollock on the West Coast, Alaska.”  And to add insult to injury, Omega Protein was fined $5.5 million for dumping bilge water, oil, and fish waste directly into the Chesapeake, which you can read about here.  Finally, if all that weren’t enough, Omega Protein has added two huge fishing vessels to their Virginia menhaden fleet this month, both nearly 200 feet long; you can read all about them here.

You can read much more about the menhaden and their teetering existence here, here, here, here, here, and here.

The first image below shows the school approaching the dock on the far right.  We have been very concerned about the status of the menhaden, as we hardly saw any during our outings on the Potomac and the Bay last year.  So we were delighted to see a whole bunch of menhaden schools during our recent visit to the Point Lookout State Park boat ramp and docking area.

In the two smaller photos you can see the school going by, then splitting to avoid a sea nettle as they swoop around the dock looking for food.

And the last image is of Cindy, silhouetted in the distance by the sun being reflected off the water, as she continues to watch the menhaden schools traversing the dock area as the sun nears the horizon.

2 thoughts on “Menhaden — the lifeblood of the Chesapeake

    1. M_Zeissler Post author

      I didn’t think they were the lifeblood either — until researchers began to see discover just how much of the other life in and around the Bay depend on them for their existence. They are now considered one of the linchpins for the future of the Chesapeake.

      Certainly they are amazing filter feeders, and rank right up there with oysters.

      Thanks for stopping by!


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