Sneak Preview: A Fish Story

A lot of bad, fateful decisions are made where greed, politics, provincialism and poor information come together. And unravelling these factors to provide a fresh look at “settled” questions is often the only way bad decisions can be reversed. That’s one moral of “Fish Story,” a fascinating tale from the Public Trust Project’s Alison Fairbrother about how a handful of determined people may have stopped the destruction of one of the Atlantic Ocean’s most critical resources, a small, oily fish called the menhaden (or in New England, the bunker). It’s available today online in a Sneak Preview from the May/June issue of the Washington Monthly, and it’s well worth a read, even if you live far from deep water.

As Fairbrother explains, the menhaden has for centuries been essential to the Atlantic ecosystem–sometimes called “the most important fish in the sea”–and a staple in the diet of many marine species, from osprey to lobsters to blue crabs to striped bass. But in recent years an obscure federally-sanctioned but part-time regulatory body set up to prevent overfishing, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, relied on a faulty computer model to allow rapid deletion of menaden stocks by a Virginia-based company harvesting the fish for meal and oil.

Once the error was discovered by a scientist working for the state of Maryland, it still took an intensive effort by marine biologists, anglers and fisheries managers to get the ASMFC in 2011 to reverse its faulty assessments of menhaden stocks and cut down on the commercial harvesting before it was too late–despite counterpressure from representatives of Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell, who has close ties to Omega Protein, the major harvester, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, pulled into the dispute by a major menhaden bait company based in his state. Despite the good guys winning the regulatory battle, the destruction of menhaden stocks could resume if Omega Protein can convince McDonnell and other political allies to pull Virginia out of the ASMFC entirely on phony “states’ rights” grounds.

It’s quite a tale, with broader implications. As Fairbrother concludes:

It’s hard to fathom that something as seemingly simple as regulating the catch of a bunch of oily fish could be so spectacularly elusive, or that this tiny creature could be some crucial to the ecological balance of the oceans and the health and well-being of life on land. At some point, economic logic and political pressure will probably force Omega Protein out of the menhaden fishing business. The question is how much damage this one company will do to the ocean’s ecology in the meantime.

Ed Kilgore

Ed Kilgore, a Monthly contributing editor, is a columnist for the Daily Intelligencer, New York magazine’s politics blog, and the managing editor for the Democratic Strategist.