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Why the Most Important Fish We Need to Save Is One You've Never Heard Of

You don't hear about menhaden because they don't show up in fish markets or on dinner menus, but they're in everything.

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At play in the politics of the AFMSC are the other 20 percent of menhaden caught each year. That segment of the catch is used as bait, mostly for commercial lobster and crab fishing, with some used for recreational fishing as well. Most of these fish are caught by a New Jersey company called Lund's Fisheries. While Omega Protein opposes any conservation efforts, so does Lund's Fisheries and the Maine lobster industry that relies on menhaden as bait.

"With the connivance of the AFMSC, Omega Protein has been successful in setting it all up so that the bait fishery is allied with the reduction fishery," in opposing conservation efforts. How so? By taking off the table any question about the use of menhaden caught. In addition to purely limiting the numbers of menhaden caught or the seasons in which it could be caught, the AFMSC could limit the use of menhaden that is caught. It could allow the bait industry to continue while limiting or banning the reduction industry. Franklin calls this "the rational solution." Omega Protein is "taking billions of fish out of the marine environment, grinding them up, boiling them up, and turning them into industrial commodities." He feels it would be in the interest of the lobster fishermen and the bait industry to stop the reduction industry if it wants to ensure the continued existence of menhaden for its own future use.

Taking the issue one step further, we must examine the role of factory farms. In order to confine a large number of animals for meat, fish, milk, and egg production and to promote rapid growth, agribusiness requires a source of protein. In a pasture-based system, ruminants like cows, sheep and goats would feed on grass, and other animals like poultry would derive some of their diets from grass and more from foraging on insects and other types of food. But, with the current system of animal confinements that produces the majority of animal products in the U.S., if the animals do not get their protein from menhaden, they will need to get it from somewhere else.

An instructive example of what may happen without menhaden in livestock feed can be found in recent history. Following World War II, as factory farms came into being, they began by feeding the animals anchovies and other fish as well as soy meal. However, in the 1970s, there was a drastic drop in the anchovy population along the Pacific coast of South America and a drought in the United States that impacted soy exports. Together, these factors presented an opening in world markets for South American countries, particularly Brazil and Argentina, to begin mass producing soybeans for use in industrial foods and animal feed.

A second increase in demand for soy in livestock feed occurred when the Mad Cow crisis hit Great Britain, as countries banned the use of rendered animal products in many livestock feeds and factory farms needed to find a new source of protein once again. Today, several South American ecosystems are at risk and indigenous populations are being displaced to make way for continued expansion of soy acreage. Five South American countries -- Brazil, Argentina, Paraguay, Uruguay, and Bolivia -- are among the top soy exporters in the world, and soybeans cover fully half of Argentina's cropland.

Thus, while conservation measures for menhaden, particularly for the reduction industry, are crucial, unless the issue of factory farms is addressed, the demand for animal feed will likely look elsewhere, gobbling up more of South America or perhaps new areas in the world (Africa?) to produce soybeans. Just like the Puritans would have reduced their needs for menhaden had they adopted the sustainable agricultural methods practiced by the indigenous people, today we need to consider the catastrophically low levels of menhaden in the Atlantic as a wakeup call to move us toward a more sustainable form of agriculture and, with it, more sustainable diets.  

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