Fisheries of the Chesapeake Bay
ocial critic H. L. Mencken wrote in 1940 that the Chesapeake Bay was an “immense
protein factory” out of which Baltimore “ate divinely.” He recalled eight-inch blue
crabs selling for 10¢ a dozen. While the Bay still yields thousands of tons of seafood
annually, the nature of the marine life brought to the dock by watermen and its cost
have changed over time.
Top 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.
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.
A Look Back:
The Bay’s Top Commercial Fisheries in 1960
#2 BLUE CRAB
#4 RIVER HERRING
#5 STRIPED BASS
#6 SOFT CLAM
#9 SUMMER FLOUNDER
Atlantic menhaden have been the number
one fishery by weight at least since
Mencken’s day. It is caught primarily to be
rendered by the ton into oil for dietary supplements and meal for animal feed.
Whether this is the best use of this ecologically critical species is 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.
Today, blue crabs and striped bass both are
high on the list, a testament to the use of
science-based catch limits to reverse
declines they suffered in recent decades
due to overfishing and loss of habitat.
Achieving a similar recovery for menhaden
will depend on those same decision-mak-ers holding the line on overfishing.
Commercial Fishery Gear
Fyke Nets: small stationary traps similar
in function to pound nets used mostly
Gill Nets: fine nets with meshes sized to catch
target fish behind the gills when they swim
into the net
Purse seine: large-scale net that encircles a
school of fish and closes at the bottom like
Pound Nets: large stationary traps in which
long net fencing on poles funnels fish into the
trap or “pound”
Rod and Reel: commercial hook-and-line gear
Crab Pots: wire mesh baited traps that are
deployed individually on the bottom
Crab Trotlines: long lines with bait attached
every 6-8 feet that lay on the bottom and are
retrieved gradually while the feeding crabs are
Dredges: heavy steel frame and mesh bag
dragged across the bottom to gather oysters
Hand Tongs: long poles pinned together like
scissors with rakes on the bottom end
Hydraulic Tongs: large mechanized version of
hand tongs deployed from a mast and boom
on a boat
18 Summer 2012 ; cbf.org