Lower Chesapeake Bay fishermen came upon the grisly sight in late June 2014, tens of thousands of dead menhaden floating on the greenish-brown swells of the Bay. Most of the small, silvery fish were missing their heads and tails.

ChesapeakeLiving.com blogger Blair Hansford was fishing near the mouth of the Bay.

“As we followed the ones and twos floating on the surface like a Hansel and Gretel pebble trail,” he reports, “it led us to a more disturbing scene. The numbers increased and soon we were driving by THOUSANDS (sic) of dead menhaden.”

Another fisherman, Capt. David, reported a similar scene, thousands of dead menhaden. He was by Cape Henry near the northeast corner of Virginia Beach, Virginia. The line of floating fish stretched at least 15 miles.

Capt. David also found them at ‘second island’ near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel.

“These fish were ‘dressed’ as in no heads and no tails,” wrote Capt. David.

“The smell was awful like they had been floating for a long time,” he said.

Importance of Menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay

Menhaden (pronounced men-HAY-dehn) are relatively small Atlantic Ocean fish. They grow to about a foot and swim back and forth between the Bay and ocean in huge schools, eating the Bay’s algae and helping to filter the water.

Bigger fish follow menhaden into the Bay. The “trophy” sized rockfish and cobia that everyone loves to show in their photos stay in the Bay because menhaden hang out here. Fishermen use menhaden as bait to catch those big fish. It’s a Chesapeake Bay circle of life, based on menhaden.

When fishermen came across the headless/tailless dead fish, they were upset. Their circle was in danger.

A charter boat captain called the local newspaper. Others went to online chatrooms.

“It was bad,” Anderdw2 wrote. “I saw this pretty early on, but there wasn’t a breath of life in any of the strings (of menhaden) and certainly no other fish nearby.”

String of dead menhaden on Chesapeake Bay
Anderdw2 posted this picture on TidalFish.com, a fishing chatroom, “This was one string of about 12 that we saw. Way more than a few thousand. If i were to guess, at least 10-15k.”

The Virginian-Pilot newspaper looked into the story and reported it was due to a fishing overload by Omega Protein, a leading producer of Omega-3 fish oil.

Omega Protein

Omega Protein has a fish processing plant in Reedville, Virginia, that pumps out dietary supplements and fish meal products. It was founded in 1878 by John Haynie and Thomas Haynie in Reedville, Virginia. They processed menhaden fish oil for fuel and manufacturing. That fuel product died out in the 1920s when the public started using kerosene and petroleum, but the Reedville plant kept going with the manufacturing side.

The market turned around again when studies in the early 2000s found that fish oil reduces cholesterol. Remember the famous movie line, “Soylent Green is people”? Cholesterol-lowering fish-oil pills are menhaden.

Menhaden oil is the only fish oil approved by the FDA as a safe Omega-3 source for human consumption. The oil is also used in 29 food categories, including margarine, salad dressings, condiments, yogurt, ice cream, cheese, prepared meats, sauces, soups, crackers, cookies, cereals, and bakery products.

The oil is boiled out of menhaden. Millions of menhaden. What’s left is sold for chicken and pig feed, much of it is sold overseas.

Omega Protein is now the largest U.S. producer of protein-rich meal and oil derived from “marine sources”. In other words — menhaden

It’s a big business in Virginia. Has been for going on three generations now.

The company is now based in Houston, Texas, and operates menhaden processing plants in Louisiana, Mississippi, and Virginia. The Reedville plant produces nearly twice as much fish oil as the next largest Omega plant in Louisiana.

The company admits workers spilled some fish at the end of June.

“It’s an unfortunate situation that occasionally happens,” says Ben Landry, Omega Protein Director of Public Affairs.

They’d identified a school of menhaden with a spotter aircraft and sent two 40-foot purse-boats with the nets that scoop up the fish. The smaller boats spread out a 1,500-foot seine net, pull it out straight, then loop the net in a circle. They started rolling the menhaden into a bundle for the big ship to vacuum the fish out of the net and into the vessel’s refrigerated hold.

net boats brining in menhaden
Omega Protein net boats pulling menhaden to the cargo ship

The crew on the big boat misjudged how much room was left in the hold, “which isn’t uncommon,” says Landry.

“Sometimes that’s difficult,” he says, “ You can’t determine the depth of the school (of menhaden).”

It was late on a Friday and the full ship called for other Omega ships in the area to pick up its excess. But no vessels were nearby. The captain decided to release the excess fish and go home.

Omega Protein ship loading menhaden
Omega Protein ship loading menhaden from the net

Landry says Omega regrets that it happened and “we take full responsibility for it.” They immediately reported it to the Commonwealth of Virginia.

He says most of the fish were released alive and swam off.

But what about the missing heads and tails?

The Fight Over Omega Protein

Omega has seven big processing ships trawling in the Virginia end of the Chesapeake Bay to catch menhaden. They range from 165- to 170-feet long. Two newer vessels are slightly larger. Each ship carries an average of 1.2 million fish.

Landry estimates only a few thousand fish died that Friday. Omega’s planes kept track of the dead fish to ensure they didn’t land on beaches as happened a couple of years ago.

Landry says the dead menhaden floated off to sea with their head and tails intact.

“The company is lying,” says Tony Friedrich, Executive Director of Coastal Conservation Association – Maryland. “The fact is that they caught and dumped the fish. They (manhaden) were wasted.”

Friedrich estimates hundreds of thousands of menhaden — not a few thousand — were dumped dead, or nearly dead, into the lower Chesapeake Bay.

The Interstate Fisheries Management Program keeps track of menhaden in the Bay on behalf of all the impacted states. “For the most part, the fishery tends to be very clean,” says Toni Kerns, Director of the ISFMP.

“There’s not a lot of by-catch or fish thrown back in. If it does happen,” says Kerns, “it’s a rare occurrence.”

Landy says it happens several times a year.

“Sometimes these nets snag things in the water, or like this when the safety of the vessel (is in danger).” The ship will dump the fish rather than tow them back to the processing plant.

In other words, it happens.

Menhaden Balancing Act in the Bay

Watermen and local anglers get angry when they see thousands of dead menhaden floating by because of a mistake. They’ve seen it before.

Atlantic menhaden are an oily, little fish, growing up to 15 inches long and living up to 10 years. The younger, smaller fish stick mainly to the Chesapeake Bay, while the larger menhaden swim out to the Atlantic Ocean running from Nova Scotia to northern Florida. They return to the mouth of the Bay to spawn. The eggs wash into the bay and the larvae use brackish water and fresh-water rivers as nursery areas.

These little fish are critical to the Chesapeake Bay as we know it today.

Menhaden feeding
Menhaden feeding (Photo courtesy Gene Helfman, NOAA)

Menhaden swim in large, protective schools because they’re a tasty fish. “They’re like the potato chips of the sea,” says Friedrich with CCA Maryland.

They’re not a good fish for people, too small and oily-tasting. However, nearly every larger Chesapeake Bay predator — fish, birds, and watermen — finds menhaden a delight.

It’s Mother Nature’s balancing act. Menhaden filter the bay water and help keep it healthy. Menhaden attract big fish and birds into the Bay. The chain goes on.

The little menhaden are a huge industry because what fish and birds enjoy benefits us too — the fish oil.

The Menhaden Tug of War

“More pounds of menhaden are landed each year than of any other fish in the United States other than pollock,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

That’s been going on so long, that state and federal officials are worried. The Chesapeake Bay Foundation reports about 65% of the adult menhaden are fished out of East Coast waters every year.

The CBF says a rockfish diet used to be made of 70% menhaden. Now, it’s 8%. That means fewer rockfish returning to the Chesapeake Bay, fewer ospreys, and fewer everything that feeds on menhaden, including watermen and fishermen.

But those are the little guys in the big picture. Menhaden create an estimated 2,500 jobs in Virginia alone, contributing $236 million to the Virginia economy, according to the CBF.

And in Reedville, Virginia, an unincorporated, historic fishing village on a Chesapeake Bay tributary near the Maryland-Virginia border, menhaden mean 225 jobs at the Omega Protein processing plant.

Historic picture of menhaden fishing
Fish pens on top of menhaden processing factory.
(Historic picture courtesy NOAA)

Reedville was once one of the wealthiest U.S. towns in the late 1800s due to menhaden. There’s still what’s called “Millionaire’s Row,” historic Victorian mansions lining Main Street.

The Morris House on Main Street in Reedville, VA
The Morris House on Main Street in Reedville, Virginia

The town’s Fishermen’s Museum has several boats listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Fishing is not just a livelihood in Virginia, it’s a tradition and a way of life.

This is hundreds of jobs versus millions of menhaden. But the jobs are based on menhaden; it’s not in their long-term interest to overfish. The question is how much is too much?

Dealing With Disappearing Menhaden

“Overfishing has occurred in 32 of the past 54 years,” according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. NOAA found in 2008 that too many menhaden were being scooped up. The Bay has only 8% of the menhaden that it once had.

No menhaden, no jobs, no big fish, and so on down the chain.

Until two years ago, the amount of menhaden that Omega Protein could catch was unlimited.

All the states that touch the Atlantic Ocean or have tributaries that go into the Atlantic — from Maine to Florida on the East Coast, including Pennsylvania (which has a narrow portion that touches the Bay), the District of Columbia (on the Potomac River which flows into the Bay) and the Potomac Rivers Fisheries Commission — are members of an association chartered by Congress in 1950, the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission.

The commission voted to cap the annual menhaden catch. The “first-ever coast-wide limit” went into effect on January 1, 2013.

Virginia was allocated 85% of the overall menhaden quota, to be split between Omega and Virginia bait fishermen.

In 2014, the association set Virginia’s cap at 144,273 metric tons of menhaden. Maryland is allowed 2,321 metric tons.

Photo courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation
Photo courtesy Chesapeake Bay Foundation

That’s more than 477-million menhaden a year out of Virginia waters and about 8-million from Maryland’s end of the Chesapeake Bay.

The numbers were based on how many fish were being caught in each state at the time of the agreement. Virginia had Omega; Maryland had local fishermen.

No side was happy.

Conservation groups felt they got a victory just by getting a limit, but they wanted a serious cut in menhaden fishing, not a cap. Maryland fishermen are suing to overturn the Maryland limit, saying Virginia’s limit is unfairly large. Omega felt it was being stomped with a potential reduction of 24%.

Omega Protein’s Response

The limit had a significant impact on Omega Protein, according to spokesman Ben Landry.

“We were operating ten vessels and employed 300,” he says. “Now, it’s closer to 225.”

They’re down to seven ships out of Reedville.

Omega Protein VA processing plant
Omega Protein processing plant in Reedville, VA (photo courtesy fis.com)

Before the new menhaden levels went into effect, Omega laid off 35 people and got rid of one ship in anticipation of the new regulations.

And, indeed, Omega’s gross income slipped in 2012. But according to Wall Street Journal’s Market Watch, revenue has steadily increased over the past five years, peaking at $244 million in 2013.  Analysts say it’s a healthy company. Omega just reported its most profitable 2nd quarter in five years and projects annual growth of 5% over the next five years.

It’s done well despite the continued limits on menhaden which make up most of Omega’s business. In fact, the company told investors that the cap did not affect the company’s Chesapeake Bay harvests in 2007-2013, since company harvests have actually been near or below the new cap.

“Therefore, the Company does not expect that the new Bay cap will have a material adverse effect on its business, financial results or results of operations.” according to Omega Protein’s 2013 shareholder report.

In contrast, the report says, the BP Gulf of Mexico oil spill in 2010 had a major impact on Omega’s fish harvests.

Photo courtesy Chesapeake Bay Program
A menhaden (Photo courtesy Chesapeake Bay Program)

Omega’s professional fishing boats out of Reedville catch more fish per tonnage than any other port in the lower 48 states. Only an Alaska port catches more. But, vessels there catch mainly four-foot-long albacore tuna. In Virginia, that tonnage level comes from one-foot-long menhaden.

When Omega has an accident, the company does jump to action. They keep track of the fish by air.

“If it hits the shore we have an Omega worker on the shore until every fish is picked up,” says Landry.

“It’s an unfortunate situation that occasionally happens,” he says, “but we work to make sure that situation has the most positive outcome.”

Another Sighting of Dead Menhaden

A month after the earlier report of miles of dead menhaden floating across the Chesapeake Bay with missing heads and tails, another report by fishermen. It happened Saturday, July 28, near the northern end of the Chesapeake Bay Bridge Tunnel.

Dead menhaden found near Chesapeake Bay Bridge
Dead menhaden found Saturday, July 28, near the Chesapeake Bay Bridge-Tunnel (Photo courtesy WAVY-TV)

Virginia Beach fisherman, James Ryan, came across a line of floating, dead menhaden and recorded it. He gave video to WAVY-TV in Hampton Roads, Virginia.

Omega’s Ben Landry says it wasn’t them; they don’t fish on Saturdays and none of their people reported anything.

No fishing operation reported the spill to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (which keeps track of overall fishing numbers), so it didn’t need to report to the regional commission of states. That left the investigation up to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality.

DEQ spokesman William Hayden says they’ve not been able to determine a cause for the dead fish. Officials speculate that it could have been due to low water quality at the time.

‘Dead zones’ are scary things in the Chesapeake Bay. They’re pockets of low oxygen levels and can occur naturally. They’re also caused by pollution running into the Bay, especially after heavy rains. Dead zones can wipe out schools of fish.

However, the Maryland Department of Natural Resources reports the dead zone level in the Chesapeake Bay in late July was “much smaller than average.”

Actually, it was the lowest level in the 30 years the state has been sampling.

But that’s just Maryland’s view.

Virgina’s Response to Menhaden Dumping

Each state along the Atlantic Ocean has menhaden quotas. The ASFMC works with states to monitor the catch. But each state has a different system. And the fish that are caught and released are not counted. Only the fish taken to the processing plant end up in the totals, not the excess fish dumped overboard.

While most states assigned their natural resources department to keep an eye on things, Virginia did not. Virginia Marine Resources Commission spokesperson Laurie Naismith says the department keeps track of the fish brought to the shore for processing but “the state doesn’t regulate (menhaden) fishing.” The state does regulate saltwater fishing.

If they get a report of dead menhaden, the MRC calls the marine fleet so the company can explain. Then, the response may be sent to the multi-state commission.

If there’s no explanation, the MRC turns it over to the Virginia Department of Environmental Quality, which checks for a bad water quality explanation.

The multi-state commission says they just keep track of numbers caught, Virginia would be the one to track down the dead menhaden floating in its section of the Bay.

It’s a case of different agencies pointing to the other.

So who keeps watch on fish processors to make sure they’re not overfishing and simply tossing back the overflow? The Virginia legislature.

“If you have 140 pairs of eyes in the general assembly (watching), it’s better than seven people who don’t have a fisheries background,” says Landry.

He says seven people who meet once a month (the Atlantic Fisheries commissioners) can drastically affect your business.

And job losses impact state lawmakers.

Omega has laid off more than 60 people over the past three years. That’s of concern to politicians.

The Virginia fishermen are the get-‘er-done type of guys and want to know who will take their information when they come across fish kills.

Virginia agency spokespersons were unsure who should get the calls and emails. In the end, the MRC (which counts fish) thought such reports should go to the DEQ (which keeps track of water quality). The DEQ gave me the regional Tidewater office number, (757) 518-2000.

But it’s the 140 members of the state legislature who really have the oversight.

Maryland’s Different Approach

Maryland officials faced their own mystery.

An estimated 7,000 dead menhaden washed into Baltimore’s Inner Harbor at the end of April. Only one type of fish was found floating — menhaden.

Because of that, they didn’t believe it was due to a toxic substance or low oxygen. The fish were found from the mouth of the Patapsco River, up into Baltimore Harbor, from Fells Point to Fort McHenry.

“We determined that the most likely cause was fishing activity,” says Maryland Department of the Environment spokesman Jay Apperson. “Fish kills involving menhaden often are associated with the fish being caught in nets and then discarded.”

The investigation is still open. Omega Protein doesn’t fish in Maryland’s end of the Chesapeake Bay. However, other professional watermen do.

Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources has scientists who investigate and the DNR has a police department with high-tech equipment to track down poachers and other Chesapeake Bay scofflaws.

Earlier this month (August 2014), two Tilghman Island men pleaded guilty to illegally catching 185,925 pounds of rockfish using weighted nets and gill nets out of season.

Maryland is out to catch ’em.

But What Happened to the Heads and Tails?

Fishermen speculated that the menhaden were processed before tossed back into the Bay.

But all sides, even the Coastal Conservation group, say Omega Protein vessels don’t process the fish; they simply take the fish to the plant on land for processing.

Another theory is that their gills got caught in the nets. But fishermen argued that would be gill nets, not the seine nets that processors use.

Turns out, menhaden are a delicate fish.

“Their bones are angels’ hair,” says Tony Friedrich with CCA Maryland.

They swim in schools and need a circular container to swim around. In a square container, for example, they’ll bump their heads and die.

When the swimming area is condensed as a fishing net is reeled in, menhaden are swimming in a continually shrinking space and bumping into each other.

Also, Friedrich says, their heads pop off easily when their gills get caught in any nets.

Even if let loose alive, they die easily of stress; the stress of being caught and lifted out of the water. Then, they’re just nature’s snack food floating by, a soft tasty tidbit that’s easy to bite through. Their oil-rich heads are a delicacy to birds and their tails are fragile.

In the end, the answer is incredibly simple.

And what about those angry Virginia fishermen?

They’re getting better at using their smartphones and social media to get the word out.