For millennia God’s providence has been lavished upon the people inhabiting the Chesapeake Bay region. America’s largest estuary is home to an overwhelming abundance of fish, crabs, waterfowl, and fertile land.
The American history here is as rich as the land and waters and as old as America herself. A sub-set of this region, the Northern Neck of Virginia, that peninsula of land between the Rappahannock and Potomac Rivers of Virginia, produced multiple presidents, Civil War generals, and ambitious entrepreneurs. Just up the road is the birthplace and home of George Washington (Mount Vernon) and the boyhood home of Robert E. Lee (Stratford Hall). An hour or so south is Historic Jamestowne and Colonial Williamsburg.
Let’s get down into the water and explore a keystone member of the local ecology, the “alewife” or menhaden. Men built the economy of this region on the backs of crabs, oysters, and this oily baitfish we will be getting to know.
Pretend you’re sauntering down to the wharf with me to watch the sunrise and drink your morning coffee. You pull up a chair, take a big deep breath of the sweet, humid, salty air. You spend a little time watching the gentle tide of the bay as it moves in to cover the exposed cordgrass growing at the edge of the mudflats. After a few minutes you take notice of a periodic roiling of the water’s surface. When this disturbance occurs within earshot you notice a strange buzzing. These are menhaden!
According to Jordan & Evermann (1896-1900) the menhaden, like the herring, almost invariably travels in schools of hundreds or thousands of individuals, swimming closely side by side and tier above tier. In calm weather they often come to the surface where their identity can be recognized by the ripple they make . . . ”
Menhaden are filter feeders, swimming with their mouths wide open to fill themselves on the masses of phytoplankton and zooplankton that swirl around in the shallow productive bay waters. These waters are so productive in large part because of the constant freshwater/saltwater mixing and the relatively shallow depth of the bay itself.
This small fish maxes out at fifteen inches in length and so serves a wide variety of predators including the famous striped bass or “rockfish,” bluefish, tuna, sharks, and seabirds.
Like the amazing cordgrass of the salt marsh, menhaden have also been created to cope with a wide variety of salinity (saltiness). Adults spawn in the ocean and larva make their way to the freshwater inlets to forage in the protective warm brackish waters of the salt marsh.
The Chesapeake menhaden fishery is the largest in the U.S. in pounds of catch. This fishery is known as a reduction fishery because the major products (fish oil and fish meal) require that the fish be reduced to acquire them. The stewardship of this fish and it’s habitat is critical for the healthy functioning of the diverse ecosystems of the bay and for the livelihood of the watermen, the reduction industry, and the local economies in general. Just as the sparrow is beloved of the Lord so is the menhaden. This humble fish remains provision for us from God so long as we take careful dominion over it.
More on salt marsh ecosystems.