Fisheries

Commercial menhaden harvesting. Photo by John Surrick/CBF StaffPhoto by John Surrick/CBF Staff

Speaking for the Fish

The fish and shellfish of the Chesapeake are the most tangible symbol of the Bay, but people have taken them for granted. Historically, we've done a poor job as stewards of these valuable resources. As a result, many of the Chesapeake Bay's fisheries have been reduced in diversity and productivity. Water pollution affects all of the Bay's fisheries, undermining efforts by the Chesapeake Bay Foundation and other stakeholders to work with government agencies to rebuild the stocks.

CBF seeks to apply the lessons learned from this history to restore and maintain the Bay's valuable fisheries. To do this, CBF attempts to represent the interests of the resource itself in the fisheries management process. CBF takes pride in "speaking for the fish" at legislative hearings, in regulatory forums, and directly to fishermen.

Fisheries management is comprised of two basic functions: conservation, determining how many fish, crabs, and oysters can be caught without harming the resource, and allocation, determining who gets to catch these resources.

Historically, conservation has been compromised to satisfy allocation pressures, with the result being depleted fisheries. CBF believes these two functions must be separate, and to advance this fundamental concept, we focus on conservation issues. For conservation to be successful, we believe it must be based on science with input from fishermen. CBF promotes the use of the best available scientific information as the basis for conservation decisions, but when information is incomplete, we advocate "erring on the side of the resource."

 


American Shad & River Herring

Topping catches in the 1800s, but absent from today's top ten list, are shad and herring—anadromous species that travel up coastal tributaries to spawn in fresh water. The largest, American shad, had such prolific spawning runs that it was the dominant Bay fishery for nearly two hundred years. Largely forgotten now because overfishing and dams blocking their migrations finally snuffed out these runs, American shad have been under catch moratoria for decades.

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Atlantic Menhaden

Atlantic menhaden have been the number one fishery by weight for decades. It is caught primarily to be rendered by the ton into oil and meal for dietary supplements and animal feed. Whether this is the best use of this ecologically critical species—it is essential food for a variety of fish, birds, and mammalsis open to debate. Although the homeport of the Bay’s menhaden fleet—Reedville, Virginia—is one of the top ports in the country in weight landed annually (#2 in 2010), its rank in value of catch was only 25th in 2010 and the fish's population is now at an all-time low.

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Blue Crabs

After plummeting to a near-record low in 2007, the Bay's blue crab population nearly tripled by 2012 thanks to the application of science-based management to limit the catch of female crabs in 2008. Nevertheless, the crab population still regularly experiences wide fluctuations in abundance. These highs and lows point to a continuing instability in the crab population and thus the need to stay the course with the science-based limits.

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Oysters

The oyster fishery was at its height in the late nineteenth century, but unrestrained harvest destroyed the reefs that had accumulated over millennia. Fifty years ago the catch still ranked third, but today it barely makes the top ten. On the bright side, the fishery is shifting to aquaculture, and the Virginia farmed harvest is already greater than the wild harvest.

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Striped Bass (a.k.a. Rockfish)

The rockfish fishery was devastated by overfishing in the 1970s, but was later restored to historical levels by intensive conservation efforts. However, concerns remain that striped bass may not have enough food in the form of Atlantic menhaden—an ecologically rich little fish and the prefered food of striped bass.

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Top 10 Commercial Fisheries in the Chesapeake

(published August 2012)

#1. Menhaden

#2. Blue Crab

#3. Croaker

#4. Striped Bass

#5. Spot

#6. Catfish

#7. Summer Flounder

#8. White Perch

#9. Oyster

#10. Bluefish

Top 10 Commercial Fisheries in the Chesapeake in 1960

#1. Menhaden

#2. Blue Crab

#3. Oyster

#4. River Herring

#5. Striped Bass

#6. Soft Clam

#7. Croaker

#8. Spot

#9. Summer Flounder

#10. Catfish

You may also be interested in:
  • Mercury In Our Food In the Chesapeake watershed, mercury is responsible for more waters listed with fish consumption advisories than any other pollutant.
  • The Chesapeake's Unsung Hero Without this little unsung hero the Bay's ecosystem would likely collapse.
  • Preventing Another Striped Bass Collapse Today, "stripers" are still relatively numerous—but there are warning signs of a possible new decline.
  • CBF to PA DEP: "Add the Susquehanna River to Impaired Waters List" Recent declines in the Susquehanna's smallmouth bass health and population, along with water quality data suggesting poor conditions at key locations and at key times of the year, indicate the river fails to meet some of the basic requirements of the Clean Water Act.
  • The Forgotten Fishery After decades of harvest pressure, pollution, and migration barriers, this iconic fish is quite simply in trouble.

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