Capt. John Smith’s description of the Chesapeake Bay has long been used as a benchmark to compare this unique ecosystem’s health to what it once was long ago. Recently, many find themselves comparing the Bay of today with the Bay of 40 years ago, 20 years ago, even 10 years ago.

These constant changes — most noticeably the clarity of the water and abundance of your favorite species — can’t always be linked to a single phenomenon. One species of fish, though, stands out among the rest as its well-being is directly linked to the overall health of the Bay: the menhaden.

Four hundred years ago, no fish was quite as ubiquitous as the menhaden. Despite its relatively small size and oily composition not meant for human consumption, Smith once described the menhaden as “lying so thick with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan.”

The Bay of Smith’s time, the sights one could see along his historic route from the mouth of the James at Jamestown all of the way north to the Susquehanna, would have been drastically different without this small, but mighty, fish.

Menhaden are relatively low in the food chain. But fish important to both the recreational and commercial fishing industries such as weakfish, striped bass (rockfish), tuna and more, eat menhaden. Coastal birds, such as osprey and loons, also prey on these fish. As menhaden populations increase, so too do the populations of these predators. Overall, the health of the entire Bay’s ecosystem depends on the integral role this small fish plays.

Beyond the Chesapeake, menhaden are found throughout the Atlantic. Recently determined to make their presence known, healthier menhaden populations have turned up in the waters of New York and Narragansett Bay in Rhode Island, bringing along beautiful dinner guests such as North Atlantic right whales, humpback whales and dolphins. Management of the menhaden fishery has contributed significantly to this recent phenomenon; these waters are starting to resemble their pre-whaling times.

The Bay can and should learn from these examples. No stranger to the importance of menhaden, the Bay Journal has documented their decline, the negative impacts associated therewith and the history of its management since the 1990s.

The menhaden fishery is the largest in the Atlantic, with an approved total allowable catch of 200,000 metric tons for the 2017 fishing system. Virginia is allocated 85.32 percent of that catch while Maryland is allocated 1.37 percent, which means most of the fish stock is taken from the Chesapeake. It’s no surprise then, that neighbors to the north are seeing different results than we are here in the Bay region.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has ramped up its oversight of menhaden fisheries because of growing concerns by recreational anglers and conservationists that too few were left uncaught to support the fish, birds and whales that depend on them.

In the Chesapeake, some recreational anglers believe the depleted menhaden population caused an increase in the number of diseased striped bass affected by malnutrition as menhaden serve as the latter’s primary food source was depleted.

Although the menhaden population today has been deemed “not overfished” by the ASMFC, the wide-ranging impact of this species cannot be ignored. The menhaden fishery cannot be looked at solely based on the size of its population from a decade or so ago. Instead, management of menhaden should and must also take into account the ecological value they provide to recreational and sport anglers, to other commercial industries, and even ecotourism derived from clean, biodiverse waters.

When we look back in twenty years, we don’t want to — once more — compare the Bay to our very recent past with such distinction. The Chesapeake Conservancy works to protect and restore the health of our ecosystem and enhance outdoor recreation opportunities. The menhaden is undoubtedly a keystone species with natural, historic and economic importance. Preservation of the Bay’s historical and natural resources is something the Chesapeake Conservancy strives to achieve and needs your help, as well.

The ASMFC will be making its final decision on the future of this important fish during a two-day meeting on Nov. 13-14. It is our hope that the commission will use this ecological-based approach to management and work on returning the Bay to full health rather than focus on an industry-based approach that will earmark the Bay’s current conditions as the new standard.

(As originally posted, this piece failed to include both dates for the ASMFC meeting.  The Bay Journal regrets the error.)

The views expressed by columnists do not necessarily reflect those of the Bay Journal.