June 13, 2017

Where Are Forage Fish on the Chesapeake Bay’s Health Report Card?

Restoration efforts have helped the Bay earn an above-failing grade, but the tiny fish at the base of the system weren’t even evaluated

There’s nothing more exciting to a Chesapeake Bay angler than to see working birds off in the distance. It almost always means good fishing is ahead.

“Find the bait and you’ll find the fish,” is a phrase my father taught me, and one I’ve since passed on to my children and grandchildren. It especially holds true here on the Chesapeake Bay. Running and gunning with my family in a fast, open boat, while scanning the horizon for swooping and diving birds, is one of my favorite ways to spend a day on the water.

When rockfish are actively feeding, they push baitfish like bay anchovies and menhaden up to the surface. Sometimes the fish smash the hapless minnows a foot or more into the air. That makes them easy picking for the frenzied birds, which get so worked up that they’ll even take the bait right out of a fish’s mouth. Casting a brightly-colored lure into the melee will almost always catch fish.

forage fish chesapeake

Throughout the year I host fishing seminars in the Chesapeake Basin to give tips and advice on how to target rockfish. At one of my recent seminars, an angler asked for my thoughts on the most important environmental factors that contribute to good fishing. I rattled off four of them: bait fish, water quality, habitat, and the abundance of gamefish. It’s impossible to look at any one factor as more important than the others because they are all so intertwined—really good fishing in the Chesapeake Bay depends on the health of the entire ecosystem.

That’s why I follow The University of Maryland Center for Environmental Science’s annual Chesapeake Bay report card with such interest. The goal is to evaluate all of those factors, and more, when assessing the health of the Bay.

It’s time to get serious about our Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and the shared resources we all enjoy. Click To Tweet

This year, the Center gave my treasured estuary an overall grade of ‘C.’ That’s average—better than failing, but hardly cause for celebration. That’s why I was surprised to hear the cheers coming from some of our government agencies and environmental support groups. I know we’ve made progress, especially in areas like improved water clarity and bay grass growth, but a ‘C’ is still so far from where we need to be.

It’s right to take credit for improvements, but instead of cheering, we should see this average grade as a reminder of the challenges we face—and how much more work there is to be done.

At the same time, the report card gave Chesapeake Bay fisheries a surprisingly high grade of 90 percent, despite a general consensus among recreational fishermen that the spring 2017 trophy striped bass season was the worst in recent memory. Many anglers I talk with say big fish catches have been declining steadily in the past decade, which makes the report card’s failure to evaluate the strength of the menhaden population—the stripers’ main food source—all the more puzzling.

Chesapeake Bay rockfish. Photo courtesy of Shawn Kimbro.

It’s inconceivable that an otherwise comprehensive assessment of the Bay’s ecosystem would not include an accounting for what has been described as “the most important fish in the sea.” Menhaden are the favorite forage fish for mature rockfish, and a vital component of the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem. In addition, menhaden are literally water cleaning machines. While eating plankton that causes algae blooms, one adult menhaden can filter 2.4 gallons of water every minute.

The link between healthy and abundant menhaden stocks and plentiful rockfish and other popular sportfish is undeniable, which is why sportfishing groups and anglers have been pushing federal and state fisheries managers for more than a decade to consider regulations that would help ensure abundant menhaden and other important forage stocks.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the organization that manages our shared fisheries resources, is currently considering an ecosystem management amendment for menhaden. A new approach would factor in the menhaden’s critical role in the ecosystem as prey and efficient water cleaners. This is an effort that recreational anglers up and down the East Coast should support.

The effort to conserve menhaden has been a long and arduous process, but nearly every indication of success has been undercut by constant pressure to increase the harvest for menhaden and striped bass. Managers must move beyond this one step forward, two steps back approach to ensure a brighter future for baitfish, the species they support, and the Bay’s fishermen.

Even as the ASMFC has conceded that the spawning stock biomass for striped bass is down, commissioners were faced with a proposal to increase the rockfish harvest. While that effort failed, it illustrates the clear pressure on the Commission to increase harvests, even when the news on fish populations isn’t all that great.

If we don’t stop looking past short-term economics and do a better job of protecting our big spawning-class rockfish and the bait they eat, we are headed for disaster.

It’s time to get serious about our Chesapeake Bay ecosystem and the shared resources we all enjoy. The Bay is being challenged on every front. My hat is off to the University of Maryland for the work they’re doing in evaluating the health of the Bay, but you won’t find me celebrating the overall ‘C’ grade or even that debatable ‘A’ for fisheries.

We can and must do better.

Shawn Kimbro is an avid recreational angler and the author of two books about fishing in the Chesapeake Bay. A frequent speaker to fishing clubs, environmental groups, and conservation organizations, he is recognized across the Chesapeake region as a leading voice for stewardship within the fishing community.

10 Responses to “Where Are Forage Fish on the Chesapeake Bay’s Health Report Card?”

  1. Kin Yellott

    Joe Evans and I have been friends for a long time, and he told me to check your article. I would like suggstions for how I can help with respect to bunker. And a “C” is “Poor” in my book. regards, Kin

  2. Teresa Fleener

    We recently had a forage fish bill pass here in Washington State. Our legal situation is a bit different given the Bolt decision, but you might want to check in with the environmental and fishing groups here. As I recall, it met almost no resistance.

  3. I recommend that everyone read “Running Silver: Restoring Atlantic Rivers and Their Great Migrations” by John Waldman. You will learn so much about this history of fish and fishing on the Eastern Seaboard. You will learn how far we have fallen, how much destruction has occurred to fish stocks. It might even make you cry. Of course forage fish need to be evaluated and PROTECTED.

  4. Hi Sean and TRCP,
    I work for UMCES – in the lab that creates the Chesapeake Bay Report Card. I stumbled across your article in my dentist office while reading an old copy of Chesapeake Bay Magazine. We wanted to let you know that we appreciate the input about the report card needing more forage fish indicators, specifically looking at Atlantic Menhaden. During the course of re-vamping the report card over the next few years we hope to be able to find the correct data and way of evaluating the health of menhaden and other important forage fish in order to include them in the report. It’s truly a tough job to evaluate the ecosystem as a whole but we do agree that we are missing an important part of the picture – we just haven’t had the data to include in the assessment yet. Regardless, we thank you for your input and careful reading of our report. As a fisherman myself I know that menhaden are especially key for the health of bigger (read: fun to catch) species of fish that we want around our estuary, and personally would really love to include them in the report. Would love you to keep writing articles for other indicators or stories that you think we are not hitting the mark on in our assessment.
    Kind regards,
    UMCES Integration and Application Network

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June 8, 2017

For the Chesapeake Bay’s Slow Recovery to Continue, the Funding Needs to Keep Flowing


Over the course of three weeks, we’re highlighting some of the major conservation issues for Chesapeake Bay fisheries, some possible solutions, and what this means to sportsmen and women across the region. Last week, we talked about what Pennsylvania farmers have to do with Chesapeake Bay rockfish.

Home to the iconic striped bass and a stopover for more than one million migratory birds, the Chesapeake Bay has always been an important place for sportsmen and women. With pollution flowing into the watershed from a variety of sources covering a large geographic region, partnerships are key to tackling the issue of dirty water and degraded habitat.

Nearly 35 years ago the federal government and the states of Maryland, Pennsylvania, and Virginia signed an agreement recognizing the importance of cleaning up the Bay. Since 1998, a “State of the Bay” report card has been released every year, which grades the Bay’s health on things such as striped bass and forage fish populations.

Thanks to the efforts of many groups, as well as the federal, state, and local governments, the Bay has improved from a starting score of 27 percent to 54 percent in 2016. That’s a huge improvement, but there’s a long way to go. But now, Trump’s budget proposal suggests no further funding should be appropriated to a couple of major programs in the collaborative Chesapeake Bay restoration effort.

On the Chopping Block

A detailed budget request, released on May 23, shows that President Trump will continue to push for steep cuts to conservation programs and agencies. Among other major changes for fiscal year 2018, the document proposes eliminating funding for the EPA’s Chesapeake Bay Program and Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program. These cuts have serious implications for Chesapeake Bay health.

The Chesapeake Bay Program is led by the EPA in partnership with state and local governments, nonprofits, and universities, and is one of the major funding mechanisms for Bay restoration. Two-thirds of the program’s funds go directly to state and local governments, in the form of grants, to help with watershed restoration and monitoring efforts, and support a wide-variety of projects.

For example, Chesapeake Small Watershed Grants can be used to help improve agricultural practices and restore habitat, and Innovative Nutrient and Sediment Reduction Grants support innovative solutions to reduce or eliminate nutrient and sediment pollution. To date, these two programs alone have helped restore more than 6,600 acres of wetlands and 1,670 miles of forested riparian buffers, install more than 320 miles of livestock exclusion stream fencing, re-connect over 245 miles of rivers and streams for fish passage, and established 279 acres of oyster reefs. That’s a lot of on-the-ground conservation.

The Section 319 Nonpoint Source Management Program helps achieve the goal of the Clean Water Act to “restore and maintain the chemical, physical, and biological integrity of the nation’s waters,” by providing grants and technical assistance to help state and local governments and nonprofits address pollution, including agricultural runoff.

Since its creation in 1987, the program has helped to partially or fully restore 674 waterbodies, including several in the Chesapeake Bay watershed. For example, Section 319 grants have been used to significantly decrease nitrogen pollution in the Corsica River and to improve fish habitat in Sligo Creek—both of which flow into the Chesapeake Bay.

These programs and others work in concert to slowly, but steadily, heal America’s largest estuary, however momentum depends on continued investments in conservation.

But It’s Not Over Yet

It’s important to remember that the President’s proposed budget doesn’t get enacted as-is because Congress holds the power of the purse, so these programs might not actually be completely gutted come fiscal year 2018. But the document does clearly elucidate, in writing, what kind of work the White House wants to bolster—and what they’re okay with ditching. It gives us a peek at executive priorities.

And if the President’s budget is any indication, we need to keep reminding lawmakers that cutting, reducing, or neglecting programs that strengthen fishing and hunting traditions won’t sit well with sportsmen and women.

Learn more about the budget and what farm bill programs are doing to help this watershed, then check back next week for the final post in this series about the tiny, but critical, forage fish at the center of the Chesapeake’s habitat challenges.

Header image Courtesy of the Chesapeake Bay Program/Flickr.

Habitat Must Remain the Focus of Sage Grouse Conservation Efforts

With only 60 days to work together with DOI and see that strong, science-based plans for sage grouse conservation move forward, hunting and fishing groups emphasize that habitat must remain the priority

This morning, the Department of Interior released a Secretarial Order initiating the review of sage grouse conservation plans meant to keep the bird off the endangered species list.

The order establishes a DOI interagency team to evaluate, within 60 days, whether federal plans are complementary to state plans and compatible with recent administrative orders on energy independence. Any resulting recommendations could have a significant effect on the future conservation of all sagebrush-dependent species, including sage grouse, pronghorn antelope, and mule deer.

After careful review of the order, the top priority of conservation and sportsmen’s group leaders for habitat to remain the primary focus of conservation efforts. These experts maintain that administrative action must not undermine the safeguards provided by the federal conservation plans.

On a briefing call with press and stakeholders yesterday, before the order became public, Secretary Zinke noted that one goal would be to ensure that “innovative ideas” from the states are considered to allow flexibility. These might include setting population target goals, establishing captive breeding programs, improving predator control and monitoring techniques, and curbing West Nile virus, according to the Secretary.

“Many of these suggested tools are already available to the states,” says Miles Moretti, president and CEO of the Mule Deer Foundation. “Controlling predators and West Nile virus, for example, can be done within the current plans, but these measures cannot stand in place of managing habitat for a healthy ecosystem that benefits all sagebrush-dependent species and stakeholders—from sportsmen and landowners to industry. We support Secretary Zinke’s goal of strengthening collaboration with the states and resolving their remaining issues with federal sage grouse plans, but habitat conservation must remain the focus. That is the only real long-term solution.”

“Sage grouse conservation should be driven by science and guided by professional wildlife managers,” says Steven Belinda, executive director of the North American Grouse Partnership. “We support innovative ideas for grouse management, but some of the suggestions offered by the Secretary are simply not supported by current science. The preponderance of scientific evidence clearly demonstrates that habitat loss and degradation is the primary cause of declines in sage grouse populations over the past several decades. Addressing habitat concerns
will achieve the goal of healthy populations and minimize the impacts from disease, predators and drought, making captive breeding unnecessary.”

A letter sent by leaders of the Western governors task force on sage grouse indicates there’s little appetite for an approach where sage grouse would be managed based on targets for population size versus overall habitat health.

“Population size and habitat are inextricably linked, and undermining habitat protections while attempting to meet population objectives by other means is not sustainable,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “The combination of agreed-upon federal, state, and private land conservation efforts represents the best chance for long-term, range-wide survival of sage grouse. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the bird in 2015 will be reviewed in 2020, and opening up the plans to major changes legally requires an amendment process that threatens the outcome of that review. We look forward to working with Secretary Zinke and his staff to resolve remaining issues with the plans, and we’re confident that a legitimate review should demonstrate that they were based off the best science, with balance and flexibility built in so that state concerns could be addressed.”

“The work to benefit sage grouse over the last five years has been the greatest landscape-scale conservation effort undertaken in modern times, which is why this order to review the plans seems to be a solution seeking a problem,” says Steve Williams, president of the Wildlife Management Institute and former director of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. “The decision not to list the bird was predicated on federal and state plans being implemented simultaneously, without interference, and in combination with ongoing conservation efforts on private lands. Any amendments to the plans before they’ve been fully implemented would impede real conservation results, threatening not only the bird but also certainty for stakeholders like sportsmen, ranchers, and industry.”

A review of conservation plans by a new administration is reasonable to expect, but sportsmen’s groups ask that the process is transparent and inclusive.

“Sportsmen’s groups have worked extensively on sage grouse conservation efforts, including those of private landowners,” says Howard Vincent, president and CEO of Pheasants Forever and Quail Forever. “The Secretary mentioned there is a lot of anger and mistrust in local communities, but I’m confident that a comprehensive review process will also document the substantial and growing number of landowner success stories across the West, where improvements for sage grouse also benefit livestock. We strongly encourage Secretary Zinke to document those successes, include them in the review, and work closely with USDA Secretary Purdue to ensure supportive, conservation-minded landowners are not left out of the conversation.”

Sportsmen and conservation organizations have been actively engaged in sage grouse conservation for many years. Key groups were deeply involved in developing conservation plans that led to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s decision not to list the greater sage grouse for protection under the Endangered Species Act in September 2015. Key to that decision, which sportsmen celebrated, was the unprecedented landscape-scale approach through complementary conservation plans for federal, state and private lands.

Sportsmen have also worked closely with the Western Governors Association and the Western Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies to develop a roadmap for future research, management, and conservation efforts across the sage grouse’s range. Hunters and recreational shooters have contributed well over $130 million to sage-grouse management and conservation since 2000 through license sales and gear purchases—this funding has been distributed to the states as dictated by the Pittman-Robertson Act. Finally, the community has strongly supported and coordinated with the aforementioned Western landowners and other individuals working to conserve sage grouse habitat through voluntary efforts under the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s Sage Grouse Initiative and other collaborative programs.

Read the full Secretarial Order here.

Delaying This Infrastructure Project Will Have Very Real Impacts on Fishing in Louisiana

Agencies must implement sediment diversion projects quickly to safeguard habitat in the Gulf of Mexico for the sake of sportsmen and local communities

Land loss in the Gulf of Mexico has been a constant threat to a long list of species, including largemouth bass, redfish, speckled trout, tarpon, teal, and gadwalls. Fortunately, the Louisiana legislature has just approved a Coastal Master Plan that will put $50 billion to work over the next 50 years to address the increasingly severe combination of land loss and sea level rise.

The difficult truth is that it’s too expensive to recover all that has been lost, but implementing sediment diversion projects is key to sustaining what’s left. The longer we wait, the more land we lose—and Gulf anglers, especially, will become worse off.

Yet, the Army Corps of Engineers has delayed a much-needed project for more than five years. In fact, after signing an agreement in 2016 to guarantee review of the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion project within three years, the Corps announced that they’d actually wait until 2022.

By then, there might not be anything left to protect.

Anglers Pay the Price

Captain Terry Lambert talks about the waters in the lower Barataria Basin west of Buras like they’re family members and friends who have passed away.

“Over here to the left is where Chicharas Bay used to be and over here to the west was Cyprien Bay,” said the veteran guide, gesturing from the deck of his boat. Lambert has fished the areas both east and west of the Mississippi River in lower Plaquemines Parish for the last 30 years. “Where we’re fishing now, these three little clumps of cane are all that’s left of Dry Cypress Bayou. It’s hard to believe sometimes when you’re out here that a pile of shells here and there is all that’s left of our marsh on the west side of the river.”

Lambert guided our crew of outdoor writers and conservationists to a handful of washed out and submerged spoil banks out of Joshua’s Marina in early April, on one of the few days he said he could fish the west side of the river this spring. The trip was productive—50 beautiful, textbook two-pound speckled trout crossed the gunwales of Lambert’s boat that morning.

“We’re only here because the wind is blowing less than 10 knots today,” he said. “If it blows any harder, the water gets too dirty and it’s too hard to fish in all this open water. When I started guiding here, we always fished the west side of the river. There was marsh here then. There was protection. Now, there’s so little left here that most days we are forced to cross the river to where there’s marsh, so we can escape the wind and find fish.”

“When I started guiding here, we always fished the west side of the river. There was marsh here then.” Click To Tweet
Federal Agencies Must Step Up

The longer it takes to get sediment flowing and the more land that’s lost, the harder—and more expensive—it becomes to achieve sustainability, growth, and certainty for Louisiana’s coastal communities. Delaying this time-sensitive project is not only troubling, it’s irresponsible. That’s why the TRCP, along with 32 other groups, sent a letter to the secretaries of defense and commerce urging them to come up with a plan to expedite, rather than delay, this time-sensitive project.

“Delaying the construction of the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion would threaten the safety of coastal communities and make it much more difficult and expensive to sustain ecological diversity in a critically rich ecosystem,” our groups wrote.

To see how the diversion will work to literally build the coastline and its habitat, watch this video about plans for the Mid-Barataria Sediment Diversion.

June 1, 2017

Retreating From World Climate Accord Does a Disservice to Fish and Wildlife

Sportsmen will follow the science and do what we can to conserve our natural world for those still ‘within the womb of time’

President Trump’s decision to withdraw the United States from the Paris climate agreement is a step in the wrong direction for our country’s fish, wildlife, and sportsmen, says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

“Hunters and anglers are on the front lines of the changing climate. We witness firsthand the changes that are happening to our fish and wildlife populations and natural systems across the nation: Lengthier fire seasons, delayed duck migrations, shrinking coldwater fisheries, dying coral reefs, tick-ridden moose, intensifying algal blooms, and much more,” says Fosburgh.

“Smart people can disagree about the solutions to climate change, but the science clearly shows that we need to do something. The Paris agreements might not be perfect, but they are voluntary measures embraced by almost all of the nations in the world. As Americans who enjoy so many privileges afforded by the outdoors, we must all help ensure that our natural world is conserved for our children and for, as Theodore Roosevelt stated, those still ‘within the womb of time.’”

With the absence of federal leadership, the TRCP counts itself among the NGOs that will need to join with states, local communities, corporations, and American citizens to follow the science and do what we can to conserve our outdoor heritage.

Top photo by Rick DePaiva.



Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.

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