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.

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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.)

Today the reduction industry accounts for 80 percent of menhaden caught on the Eastern seaboard. Incredibly, all of these fish are caught by one company, Omega Protein, which employs spotter planes to locate enormous schools of menhaden so its ships can surround them with a purse seine -- a fishing net almost a third of a mile long that closes like a drawstring purse, trapping the fish in the middle -- and vacuuming them into a refrigerated hold that can carry over one million menhaden at a time. The menhaden caught and "reduced" by Omega Protein go into factory farmed animal feed, pet food and margarine. A small percent go into omega-3 supplements for humans.

To date, no conservation measures have been put in place for menhaden. Currently, less than 10 percent of menhaden's 1955 population remains, and the 1955 population was no doubt already reduced from the numbers found in previous centuries. In 2005, ASMFC put catch limits in place, but the limits were higher than the amount of fish ever caught before or since. (The 2005 measures could be compared to a highway with a 300 mph speed one will ever get a speeding ticket.) The November 9 vote represents the first time significant conservation measures will be voted upon by the body. They may take a range of actions, from doing nothing, to limiting the catch of menhaden by up to 37 percent.

Is this good enough? Peter Baker, the director of the Northeast Fisheries Program at the Pew Environment Group, thinks so. He say it will allow the menhaden population to quadruple over time, and that is what Pew wants to see. But Franklin says no. He points to politicians and other officials who have been bought off with Omega Protein's money, and says, "there really is no rational reason to allow the menhaden reduction industry to continue to exist." In Virginia, for example, where one of Omega Protein's factories is located, the political system is awash with Omega Protein's money. And the executive director of ASMFC recently appeared in a paid infomercial, defending Omega Protein.

Franklin speaks passionately about the impact the reduction industry has on the marine ecosystem of the Atlantic seaboard. What if there were a company that found a way to catch all of the bees in an entire region in order to grind them up and sell them? he asks. "If crops were failing because the bees weren't pollinating them, would we allow this business to continue?" That's essentially what is happening in the ocean as a result of the reduction industry.

Franklin refers to the title of his book,The Most Important Fish in the Sea. "There's no other fish or other species in the marine environment that has such crucial roles in the environment," he reflects. "We don't understand a lot about the marine environment...there's so many variables, it's hard to do good science out there, but we know certain things about an ecological system. You can't remove an important component of a ecosystem without causing changes that threaten the whole system."

He continues, saying, "We've been removing this part and we're seeing the results. We're seeing the results, the sick fish, like the striped bass that are resident in the Chesapeake that are infected with a kind of fish tuberculosis. It's a horrible sight to see these fish. They're skinny, they're starving, many of them are rotting from inside out. The Chesapeake was the great pearl of our whole marine ecology on this coast. We're right on the brink of a true marine catastrophe." He feels somewhat pessimistic about the upcoming vote on menhaden conservation. Baker is slightly more optimistic but still expects that "the industry will put up a good fight."

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.  

Jill Richardson is the founder of the blog La Vida Locavore and a member of the Organic Consumers Association policy advisory board. She is the author of Recipe for America: Why Our Food System Is Broken and What We Can Do to Fix It..