Dr. Paul Spitzer, a biologist who studies
loons, is out in a motorboat counting the
birds, as he does most autumns, when the
trees lining the shores turn gold and crimson. He spots a chorus of the birds spread
out to surround a school of small fish
“When these birds are in a long arc like this,
it is like a living fishnet,” Dr. Spitzer
said, watching with binoculars as the
loons feast on their banquet, then
spread their wings to preen and oil
their feathers. “The presence of loons
here on the Chesapeake Bay is very
much one of the signs of the season.”
The birds look, well…a bit loony—
with thick, torpedo-shaped bodies,
black heads, and large webbed feet
that make them walk awkwardly. But they
are lords of the water, powerful swimmers
capable of diving 150 feet down and
remaining underwater for several minutes. Loons have oil-slicked feathers and
solid, heavy bones to help them dive.
Their eyes are blood-red, evolved to help
them see underwater.
The relatively meager size of the flock on the
Choptank is emblematic of a broader
change Dr. Spitzer said he has witnessed
over the last quarter century, as fewer and
fewer loons appear to be visiting the
“Our count on this flock is about 85, our
total count on the day is about 120,” Dr.
Spitzer said. “That would perhaps be 20
percent what a survey here would have
Protecting a Key
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries
Commission voted on November 9, 2011, to
impose new fishing guidelines to protect
menhaden, a small, oily fish that is an important source of food for loons, striped bass,
and many other species.
“This is a very hopeful sign,” said Bill
Goldsborough, Director of Fisheries for CBF
who serves on the fisheries commission. “The
more menhaden that are in the water, the
healthier the whole Chesapeake Bay ecosystem will be.”
found 25 years ago. We would typically
have found 500 or 600 birds.”
Why the decline?
“Well, the argument is that the food for
loons just isn’t here,” Dr. Spitzer said.
“What we are seeing is the number of birds
supported by the food that’s here.”
Dr. Spitzer and other scientists are concerned that the loon’s main prey here in the
Chesapeake—small, oily fish called menhaden—are in decline.
A study released last year by the Atlantic
States Marine Fisheries Commission
(ASMFC) concluded that menhaden have
been overfished in 32 out of the last 54
years. The population of the fish is at the
lowest level on record.
Industrial fishing fleets out of Reedville,
Virginia, caught an estimated 183,000 metric tons of menhaden last year. They were
ground up to manufacture fish oil pills, livestock feed, and other commercial products.
On November 9th, ASMFC voted to
impose new fishing guidelines that could
The new guidelines (see page 20) could eventually reduce menhaden catches by roughly a third.
But first, the commission must develop and
adopt fishing limits for meeting the guidelines.
And then the Virginia General Assembly must
approve any fishing limits.
The East Coast’s only remaining menhaden fleet,
based in Reedville, Virginia, employs almost 300
workers. The industry has long argued against
harvest restrictions, and in the past has found
support in the General Assembly. If Virginia
fails to act to protect menhaden, despite the
action by the other Atlantic states, the federal
government could step in and impose a moratorium on catching menhaden in Virginia.
A big political battle may yet loom over the
eventually reduce the catch of menhaden.
But the Virginia General Assembly must
still vote on any catch restrictions, which
could spark a battle (see sidebar).
Hanging in the balance of the fight over
menhaden is the fate of a wide variety of
species in the Chesapeake Bay that eat menhaden, including loons and striped bass.
Loons, striped bass, and menhaden
are all tied tightly together in the
Bay’s web of life. A recovery of
striped bass populations two
decades ago, driven by tight restrictions on catching the fish, coincided with a decline in both menhaden
and visiting loons. This has led Dr.
Spitzer to speculate that there could
be a connection, with stripers eating fish that loons also need.
During his trip out to the Choptank River,
as the flock of loons dove for fish and hooted to each other, Dr. Spitzer and the captain
of the boat, Jim Price, grabbed their fishing
rods. They quickly reeled in several striped
bass, which flipped and slapped their tails.
Back on shore, Price, sliced open the
stripers’ stomachs to reveal that almost all
of them were full of menhaden.
Menhaden are a keystone species in the
Bay. And the decline of menhaden could be
throwing the Chesapeake’s whole chain of
life out of balance, said Dr. Bryan Watts,
Director of the Center for Conservation
Biology at William and Mary and Virginia
He said the Chesapeake Bay is famous as a
destination for a spectacular array of
migrating birds, from loons to osprey and
pelicans. But he warned this part of the
Bay’s identity could slip away if there are no
fish for the birds to eat.
“As the fish go,” Dr. Watts said, “so do all
the species that depend on them.”
If the call of the loon vanishes from the
Chesapeake Bay, autumn will not be the same
here. A spirit of the season will be lost.
Tom Pelton, an award-winning
environmental journalist, is
Senior Writer and Investigative
Reporter for CBF. Read his blog