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In a Purse Net at Smith Point Lighthouse

Guarding the wide mouth of the Potomac along its southern edge, Smith Point Lighthouse also roughly marks the Maryland/ Virginia border across the Chesapeake. At least 5 different lighthouses have been constructed along various areas of the constantly shifting shoreline. The state boundary as it extends across the Chesapeake remains static, and largely unnoticed, save for a few. It’s not a boundary which the underwater inhabitants of the Chesapeake care much about. But those of us who dwell on shore might take note of the marker, when we’re lucky enough to find ourselves out on the water.

The boats making the most careful measurements of the boundary aren’t recreational vessels though. A fleet of commercial fishing trawlers stationed in nearby Reedville, on the Northern Neck peninsula of Virginia, make their way out into the middle bay from the Great Wicomico. The Omega Protein factory in Reedville is one the last remaining protein reduction factories on the east coast, which specialize in the harvesting and rendering of Atlantic Menhaden into fertilizer, cat food, and health supplements for us.

Over the years, most states have moved away from reduction factories, in part because of the population decline due to over fishing in their managed waters (there is a report that the menhaden population rebounded in 2023, but it hasn’t been widely confirmed). Virginia, the lone hold out in the inland menhaden harvesting industry, still allows the harvesting of menhaden within its Chesapeake Bay waters. Maryland has banned the commercial harvesting of the fish.

Which means that invisible boundary separating Maryland and Virginia waters is a -pun intended- life line for the little fish as they school and move throughout the middle bay region. Menhaden harvesting is regulated by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The ASMFC regulates how much menhaden can be harvested across the Atlantic coast. Virginia is alotted 75% of that quota, and within Virginia, Omega is alotted about one third of that. Which amounts to about 112 million pounds of the little oily fish.

It's not uncommon to see the Omega fleet patrolling near their northern boundary around Smith Point. They’re not just pulling purse nets through the water though. They also take to the skies in pursuit of their target. A small squadron of spotter planes accompanies the fleet on most days, looking for the tell tale darker slicks of water on the surface which give away the fish locations. On one occasion, we counted 4 different spotter planes in the air at the same time, which was one for every two boats.

The activity is enough to make you wonder if there’s some sort of military operation under way.

A battle is definitely raging.

Virginia conservation groups have long pushed for motions to outlaw the harvesting within bay limits. Those motions, as recently as this year, have fallen short. A recent lawsuit filed by the Southern Maryland Recreational Fishing Organization against Omega Protein has been allowed to go forward in Virginia. An attempt to have the lawsuit dismissed was unsuccessful. Meanwhile, Omega, partly backed by an ASMFC assessment, maintains that overfishing is not occurring, and that the population remains healthy despite fluctuations.

The mouth of the Potomac has traditionally been a productive fishery for recreation and commercial anglers. Whether fishing for striped bass, cobia, drum or other sport fish, In short, there was typically some sort of activity around the Smith Point Lighthouse. Just this week, Maryland has proposed a complete cancellation of the spring 2024 STRIPED BASS recreational trophy season.

While a good deal of the blame is rightly being placed on temperature and water quality changes in the bay, you might be able to guess what’s a striped bass’s favorite food? This isn’t a riddle. It’s menhaden. But these days, you won’t find as many menhaden or striped bass around Smith Point Lighthouse. You’ll have to check the purse nets.

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