PATUXENT RIVER, Md.
The sun had just risen over the Patuxent River when the crew of the Aquarius launched its routine: casting a 30-foot net off the trawler's bow, hauling it in and flinging its contents of writhing fish and crabs onto a wooden slab. Members measured each creature and weighed it, then headed back to the lab to dissect each one and study what it had eaten.
It's a ritual that scientists and anglers have performed for ages in an effort to understand the world beneath the water's surface.
A group with the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Lab goes out at dawn. Adam Peer, right, and Bill Connelly, left, are doctoral students.
(Susan Biddle -- The Washington Post)
Advocates For Bay To Sue The EPA (The Washington Post, Nov 10, 2004)
Watermen Tap Oyster Reserve (The Washington Post, Oct 31, 2004)
Panel Brings Bay Cleanup Cost Into Focus (The Washington Post, Oct 28, 2004)
Advocates For Bay Churn Waters (The Washington Post, Sep 5, 2004)
Oyster Project Consumed With Problems (The Washington Post, Aug 25, 2004)
But what happens to the data collected on the Aquarius is totally new, a small part of an ongoing revolution in how humans manage marine life. The new way of thinking comes after the numbers of cod, scallops and oysters have declined precipitously.
"Many people feel fisheries management has generally failed to preserve fish, and they're looking to a new holy grail," said Michael K. Orbach, who teaches marine policy at Duke University and has advised the government on fisheries management and conflicts.
Government regulators had set population targets for each species and type separately, aiming only to maintain certain numbers. But now regulators say they want to manage the nation's fisheries as one big ecosystem, basing their targets on many elements, including the diet of water birds, the quality of the water and whether predator fish have enough prey.
"Our classical approaches have been like trying to understand traffic problems by focusing on the cars without focusing on the road," said Thomas J. Miller, an ecologist with the University of Maryland's Chesapeake Biological Laboratory.
The epicenter of the movement is the Chesapeake Bay, where federal regulators are launching a test case for "ecosystem-based management." At issue are two of the nation's most important fish: the striped bass, and the Atlantic menhaden. Each has its champions.
The bass spawn in the bay and are favorites of gourmets and recreational anglers, who bring the bay area about $500 million a year.
The menhaden -- an oily, inedible, bony little fish -- is the basis of this country's second-largest commercial fishing industry. It is used in a variety of products from cattle feed to vitamin supplements. About a third of the menhaden caught in the United States are caught in Virginia and off the North Carolina coast, the two east coast states that allow menhaden processing.
As a key source of food for other fish and a major filter for the algae and other particles in the bay, the menhaden "ecologically speaking, [is] the most important animal" in the bay, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says.
"We should look at menhaden as a keystone of the Chesapeake Bay, rather than a little, oily, bony thing out of which you can make cat food," said David H. Festa, director of the Oceans Program at the Environmental Defense Fund.
Many conservation and anglers groups accuse the menhaden industry, which uses spotter planes to locate schools, of catching too many fish -- starving the striped bass and upsetting the bay ecosystem.
The industry has responded by blaming the bass. As their numbers grow, industry officials said, bass are eating too many menhaden.