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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.

Menhaden might be the most important fish you've never heard of. As far back as the 1860s, the U.S. caught more tons of menhaden than any other fish -- and in many years, more menhaden than the combined commercial catch of all other finned fish put together. You don't hear about them because they don't show up in fish markets or on dinner menus. Rather, they go into animal feed, cosmetics, health food supplements, linoleum, lubricants, margarine, soap, insecticide, and paint.

As you might guess, catching so much of one species of fish takes a toll not only on the population of that one species, but on marine ecology as a whole. Thus, this week, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the body that regulates fishing on the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida, will vote Wednesday, November 9 on whether to protect menhaden.

Just as Michael Pollan makes the case that Americans eat mostly corn, eating it indirectly in processed foods and corn-fed animal products, more than a century ago, ichthyologist G. Brown Goode said that people who dine on Atlantic saltwater fish eat "nothing but menhaden." H. Bruce Franklin, author of The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden, says Goode exaggerated only slightly, as "menhaden are crucial to the diet of Atlantic tuna, cod, haddock, halibut, mackerel, bluefish, weakfish, striped bass, swordfish, king mackerel, summer flounder, [and] drum" -- to name a few. Marine birds, whales and porpoises also find menhaden delectable.

But Franklin also notes that menhaden's place in the diet of predatory fish and other marine species is only half of the foundational role it plays in the food chain, and beyond that, in the ecosystem as a whole. Menhaden is the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic coast's main consumer of phytoplankton -- that is, microscopic plant matter like algae. By filter-feeding on phytoplankton at the rate of four gallons of water per minute for an adult fish, these fish integrate matter that other species cannot eat into the marine food chain. They also clean the water, allowing sunlight to penetrate so that plants can grow, providing oxygen to all who live in the ocean. Thus, they help clean up the runoff of fertilizer, animal manure and other sources of nitrogen that makes its way into the ocean, preventing or mitigating the dead zones that would otherwise result from it.

Franklin traces extractive use of menhaden back to the first British settlers in New England. Menhaden was the fish that Tisquantum ("Squanto") showed the pilgrims to bury in the soil when planting corn to add fertility to the soil. The Puritans viewed the traditional indigenous polyculture of planting beans and corn together as primitive, and instead planted monocultures of corn, ultimately exhausting the soil. Thus began the traditional American practice of removing as many menhaden from the sea as technology allowed us to take in order to fertilize America's depleted soils and later for other uses.

Eventually, after the Civil War, when menhaden were used to make oil for industry in addition to their uses in farming, the drop in the menhaden population became so catastrophic that commercial fisherman rioted in Maine, burning down a "menhaden reduction" factory in 1870. The Maine legislature outlawed the menhaden reduction industry in 1879, but it was too late for their state, as menhaden have never returned to Maine waters in the numbers they were found in before. (The "reduction" industry is named for its role in reducing menhaden to commodities -- oil, solids and meal -- not for reducing the population of fish in the sea... although it does both rather effectively.)

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