A Fish Story: How an Angler and Two Government Bureaucrats May Have Saved the Atlantic Ocean
On a balmy afternoon in late summer, Jim Price reaches into the body cavity of a striped bass and pulls out a spleen. The sixty-eight-year-old jewelry-store owner palpates the organ with long gloved fingers, checking for disease. Finding none, he sets it aside before turning his attention back to the carcass. “There’s something here,” he barks, as he slices into the stomach with a scalpel and his volunteer assistant Jerry moves in for a closer look.
Jerry is two decades younger, with bristly whiskers, a butcher’s smock, and a John Deere cap. In his cheek is a wad of chewing tobacco. The two are standing on a dock on an inlet of the Chesapeake Bay in Maryland, hunched over a metal table with a plastic tarp suspended over their heads to protect them from the sun. The heat doesn’t seem to faze them, nor does the stench emanating from the pile of filleted bass carcasses that fishermen have been dropping at their feet all day.
Price slides his finger along the stomach lining, a look of anticipation creasing his face. After careful prodding, he pulls out a silvery six-inch fish. “There,” he exhales. It is an Atlantic menhaden, a bony, oily fish that has been the subject of warring factions of fishermen and coastal communities for the better part of two centuries.
Price is a lifelong striped bass fisherman with no formal training as a scientist. Yet he has spent the last four decades cutting open bass stomachs in a kind of renegade ecological study, charting the precipitous decline of the lowly menhaden. Price’s interest in the species is indirect; menhaden aren’t prized by anglers. But they are prized by striped bass. The little fish has historically been the striper’s most significant source of protein and calories. In fact, menhaden are a staple in the diets of dozens of marine predators in the Atlantic and its estuaries, from osprey to bluefish to dolphin to blue crab. In a host of undersea food chains, menhaden—also known as pogy and bunker—are a common denominator. They have been called the most important fish in the sea.