The Most Important Fish You've Never Heard of

From The Most Important Fish in the Sea by H. Bruce Franklin. Copyright © 2007 by the author. Reproduced by permission of Island Press, Washington, D.C.

First you see the birds -- gulls and terns wheeling overhead, then swooping down to a wide expanse of water dimpled as though by large raindrops and glittering with silver streaks. The sea erupts with frothy splashes, some from the diving birds, others from foot-long fish with deeply forked tails frantically hurling themselves out of the water, only to fall back into their tightly packed school. More and more birds materialize as if from nowhere, and the air rings with their shrill screams. Boats too begin to converge on the scene: the boiling cloud of birds has told anglers everywhere within view that a school of menhaden, perhaps numbering in the tens of thousands, is being ravaged by a school of bluefish.

Attacking from below and behind to slash the menhaden bodies with their powerful jaws, the razor-toothed blues are in a killing frenzy, gorging themselves with the severed backs and bellies of their prey, some killing even when they are too full to eat, some vomiting half-digested pieces so they can kill and eat again. Terns skim gracefully over the surface with their pointed bills down, dipping to pluck bits of flesh and entrails from the bloody swirls. Gulls plummet and flop heavily into the water, where a few splash about and squabble noisily over larger morsels. As some lift with their prizes, the squabbles turn aerial and a piece occasionally falls back into the water, starting a new round of shrieking skirmishes.

Hovering high above the other birds, a male osprey scans for targets beneath the surface, then suddenly folds its gull-shaped wings and power-dives through the aerial tumult, extends its legs and raises its wings high over its head an instant before knifing into the water in a plume of spray, emerges in another plume, and laboriously flaps its four-foot wingspan as it slowly climbs and soars away with a writhing menhaden held headfirst in its talons. Beneath the blues, iridescent weakfish begin to circle, snapping at small lumps sinking from the carnage. Farther below, giant but toothless striped bass gobble tumbling heads and other chunks too big for the mouths of the weakfish. From time to time, bass muscle their way up through the blues, swallow whole menhaden alive, and propel themselves back down with their broom-like tails, leaving telltale swirls on the surface. On the mud below, crabs scuttle to scavenge on leftovers.

The panicked school of menhaden desperately races like a single creature, erratically zigging and zagging, diving and surfacing, pursued relentlessly by fish and birds. Small boats follow the chase, with excited anglers shouting and casting lures that mimic the darting menhaden. Fishing rods are bent double as some of the marauding bluefish and striped bass strike the lures. Bluefish battle until they are finally hooked with gaffs and brought aboard boats, where their blood splatters decks and jubilant anglers.

Then, as suddenly as it began, the wild scene dissipates. The water becomes surprisingly tranquil, disturbed only by wind and wave and the wakes of departing boats. Except for a few gulls lazily circling down and settling on the surface, the birds have disappeared. The menhaden school survives and swims on, its losses dwarfed by plentitude. But a greater danger than predatory fish lurks nearby. The birds have attracted a spotter-plane pilot who works for Omega Protein, a Houston-based corporation that does nothing but catch vast numbers of menhaden and turn their flesh into manufactured products. As the pilot approaches, he sees the school as a neatly defined purplish mass the size of a football field. He radios to a nearby ship, whose 170-foot hull can hold more than a million menhaden. The ship maneuvers close enough to launch two forty-foot-long aluminum boats. The boats share a single purse seine -- a net almost a third of a mile long threaded with lines to close it up like a purse.

The pilot directs the boats as they swing in a wide arc away from each other to deploy the purse seine, surrounding and trapping the entire school. Hydraulic power equipment begins to tighten the seine. As the fish strike the net, they thrash frantically, churning up a wall of white froth that marks the net's inexorably shrinking circumference. The net may now contain tens of thousands of menhaden. The factory ship pulls alongside, inserts a giant vacuum tube into the midst of the trapped fish, sucks and pumps the menhaden into its refrigerated hold, and soon heads off to unload them at the Omega port and factory complex in Reedville, Virginia. There the fish will become part of the hundreds of millions of pounds of menhaden annually processed in this tiny town on Cockrell's Creek, thus making it in tonnage the second-largest fishing port in the United States.

Not one of these fish is destined for a supermarket, a canning factory, or a restaurant. Menhaden are oily, foul smelling, and packed with tiny bones. No one eats them -- not directly, anyhow. Hardly anyone has even heard of them except for those who fish or study our eastern and southern salt waters. Yet menhaden are the principal fish caught along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, exceeding the tonnage of all other species combined.

Almost all of these fish are caught by Omega Protein, which has a nearly total monopoly on what is known as the menhaden reduction industry. Omega's fleet of sixty-one ships and thirty-two spotter planes annually captures billions of menhaden. At the company's five production facilities in Virginia, Louisiana, and Mississippi, these hundreds of thousands of tons of fish are converted into industrial commodities -- hence the term "reduction." The menhaden are "reduced" into oil, solids, and meal. The oil from their bodies is pressed out for use in cosmetics, linoleum, health food supplements, lubricants, margarine, soap, insecticide, and paints. Their dried-out carcasses are then pulverized, scooped into huge piles, containerized, and shipped out as feed for domestic cats and dogs, farmed fish, and, most of all, poultry and pigs.

Menhaden have always been an integral, if unheralded, part of America's history. This was the fish that Native Americans taught the Pilgrims to plant with their corn. This was the fish that made larger-scale agriculture viable in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for those farming the rocky soils of New England and Long Island.

As the industrial revolution transformed the nation, this was the fish whose oil literally greased the wheels of manufacture, supplanting whale oil as a principal industrial lubricant and additive by the 1870s. Hundreds of ships hunted schools, schools sometimes forty miles long, up and down the coast from Maine to Florida. Strewn along the entire eastern seaboard, dozens of factories processed the fish into oil and fertilizer, making the menhaden fishery itself one of nineteenth-century America's largest industries.

During the First World War, the U.S. Navy helped guide the menhaden fleets to their prey. In the middle of the twentieth century, National Geographic and LIFE magazines were headlining menhaden as "Uncle Sam's Top Commercial Fish" and "Biggest Ocean Harvest." In the twenty-first century, Omega Protein's annual catch still exceeds that of those hundreds of nineteenth-century vessels, though most of the menhaden now come from the Gulf of Mexico, not the Atlantic.

Overall, from the 1860s to the present, catching menhaden has been far and away the nation's largest fishery. In fact, during many of these decades and years, the annual haul of menhaden weighed more than the combined commercial catch of all other finned fish put together, including Atlantic and Pacific cod, tuna, salmon, halibut, pollock, herring, swordfish, had- dock, ocean perch, flounder, scup, striped bass, whiting, croaker, snapper, sardines, anchovies, dogfish, and mackerel.

All these roles menhaden have played in America's national history are just minor parts of a much larger story of menhaden in America's natural history. For menhaden play dual roles in marine ecology perhaps unmatched anywhere on the planet. And this is why the story of menhaden is the tale of the most important fish in North America. Although hardly any of those hundreds of billions of captured menhaden have ever been caught to eat, we do eat them. No, you won't see menhaden in the fish market or supermarket seafood section, but they are present in the flesh of many other fish lying there on the ice. Menhaden are crucial to the diet of Atlantic tuna, cod, haddock, halibut, mackerel, bluefish, weakfish, striped bass, swordfish, king mackerel, summer flounder, drum, and other predatory fish. The great nineteenth-century ichthyologist G. Brown Goode exaggerated only slightly when he declared that people who dine on Atlantic saltwater fish are eating "nothing but menhaden."

Menhaden are also a major component of the diet of many marine birds and mammals, including porpoises and toothed whales. In his monumental volume A History of the Menhaden, published in 1880, Goode expressed his wonderment at menhaden's role in the natural world: "It is not hard to surmise the menhaden's place in nature; swarming our waters in countless myriads, swimming in closely-packed, unwieldy masses, helpless as flocks of sheep, close to the surface and at the mercy of any enemy, destitute of means of defense or offense, their mission is unmistakably to be eaten."

But Goode was only half right. What he did not fathom was menhaden's other -- equally stupendous mission -- in marine ecology. Where did this enormous biomass of menhaden, so crucial to the food chain above it, come from? Just as all those saltwater fish are composed mainly of menhaden, all those billions of tons of menhaden are composed almost entirely of billions of tons of the tiny particles of vegetable matter known as phytoplankton.

For menhaden, eating is just as crucial an ecological mission as being eaten. Eons before humans arrived in North America, menhaden evolved along the low-lying Atlantic and Gulf coasts, where nutrients flood into estuaries, bays, and wetlands, stimulating potentially overwhelming growth of phytoplankton. From this superabundance of photoplankton emerged the superabundance of these fish -- and the fish that eat these fish. Although menhaden are the major herbivorous fish of these coasts, they don't chomp on the plants they consume. They are filter feeders that live primarily on tiny or even microscopic plants and other suspended matter, much of it indigestible or toxic to most other aquatic animals. Dense schools of menhaden, sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands, pour through these waters, toothless mouths agape, slurping up plankton, cellulose, and just plain detritus like a colossal submarine vacuum cleaner as wide as a city block and as deep as a train tunnel.

Each adult fish filters about four gallons of water a minute. Purging suspended particles that cause turbidity, this filter feeding clarifies the water, allowing sunlight to penetrate. This in turn encourages the growth of aquatic plants that release dissolved oxygen while also harboring a host of fish and shellfish. Even more important, the menhaden's filter feeding prevents or limits devastating algal blooms. Most of the phytoplankton consumed by menhaden consists of algae. Excess nitrogen can make algae grow out of control, and that's what happens when overwhelming quantities of nitrogen flood into our inshore waters from runoff fed by paved surfaces, roofs, detergent-laden wastewater, over-fertilized golf courses and suburban lawns, and industrial poultry and pig farms.

This can generate deadly blooms of algae, such as red tide and brown tide, which cause massive fish kills, then sink in thick carpets to the bottom, where they smother plants and shellfish, suck dissolved oxygen from the water, and leave dead zones that expand year by year. In the natural ecosystem, the bonanza of phytoplankton stimulated a tremendous profusion of another filter-feeding consumer of algae: oysters. These two wonderful filter feeders kept inshore waters clear, clean, balanced, and healthy: oysters clinging to the bottom and menhaden cruising through all the upper layers. But oysters have been driven to near extinction in many bays and estuaries by overfishing and pollution. Clams and mussels also filter-feed on the algae, but neither has the enormous mass of the bygone oyster reefs or the gargantuan menhaden schools.

The only remaining significant checks on the phytoplankton that cause algal blooms and dead zones are those menhaden schools, and they are now threatened by the ravages of unrestrained industrial fishing. By the end of the twentieth century, the population and range of Atlantic menhaden had virtually collapsed. The estimated number of sexually mature adult fish had crashed to less than 13 percent of what it had been four decades earlier. Although northern New England had once been the scene of the largest menhaden fishery, adult fish had not been sighted north of Cape Cod since 1993.

Marine biologist Sara Gottlieb, author of a groundbreaking study on menhaden's filtering capability, compares their role with the human liver's: "Just as your body needs its liver to filter out toxins, ecosystems also need those natural filters." Overfishing menhaden, she says, "is just like removing your liver."

If a healthy person needs a fully functioning liver, consider someone whose body is subjected to unusual amounts of toxins -- just like our Atlantic and Gulf coasts. If menhaden are the liver of these waters, should we continue to allow huge chunks to be cut out each year, cooked into industrial oils, and ground up to be fed to chickens, pigs, and pets? Menhaden have managed to survive centuries of relentless natural and human predation. But now there are ominous signs that we may have pushed our most important fish to the brink of an ecological catastrophe.

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