By Alice Friedemann
Ever heard of menhaden? Probably not, although perhaps you're familiar with the fish’s other names: bunker, pogies, mossbacks, bugmouths, alewifes, and fat-backs. You may be surprised to learn they’re the most important fish in the Atlantic and Gulf waters.
Menhaden are the vacuum cleaners of our coasts, filtering up to four gallons of water a minute to extract phytoplankton (algae and other tiny plants). They grow no more than a foot long at most, yet the weight of an entire school of menhaden can equal that of a blue whale.
On land, plants are at the bottom of the food chain, eaten by many herbivores—mice, rabbits, cattle, insects, and so on. In the ocean, plants are also at the bottom of the food chain. The difference is, there’s only one main herbivore: menhaden. The other filter feeders—like baleen whales, herring, and shad—eat zooplankton (tiny animals).
This gives menhaden an extraordinary weight in the oceanic ecosystem: they are the main food source of the entire food web above, and the main species keeping the ecosystem healthy, by clearing the water of excess algae.
Unfortunately, as H. Bruce Franklin documents in “The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America,” they’re almost all gone. And one company, Omega Protein, is systematically eliminating the few that remain, for fishmeal and poultry feed.
Men had it
When the Pilgrims first arrived in the New World, they were astounded by the abundant sea life. The rivers and coasts were teaming with 6-foot-long salmon, foot-wide oysters, and schools of 140-pound striped bass. There were so many whales criss-crossing bays, estuaries, and the coast that they were a peril to ships.
The food chain for all of this cornucopia of life depended on billions of menhaden, once so plentiful that they formed a veritable river of flesh along the Atlantic coast, writes Franklin.
I’d never heard of menhaden until my husband, who grew up in Florida, mentioned them. Just half a century ago, when he and his friends were swimming and the menhaden came through, “they looked like the shadow of a large, approaching cloud—the water boiled with fish, and everyone got out as fast as they could because there were sharks slashing through them, biting at anything that moved.”
Franklin describes menhaden schools as acting like a single organism: “Flashes of silver with flips of forked tails and splashes, whirling swiftly…in moves more dazzling than those of a modern dancer, as they seek escape from hordes of bluefish below and gulls above…a breathtaking experience.”
Menhaden were eaten by dozens of kinds of fish, as well as sea mammals and birds. (Humans don’t choose to eat them because they smell awful and are too oily. But we do eat them indirectly when we dine on menhaden predators, such as tuna, cod, shark, and swordfish.)
The Native American word for menhaden translates to “fertilizer”: they buried these fish below the corn they planted. The Pilgrims copied them, and grew triple the corn they could have otherwise. Later generations forgot about using menhaden as fertilizer, until an article about the practice in 1792 changed all that. It wasn’t long before millions of tons of menhaden were caught and dragged as far as seven miles inland to be dumped on fields, saving farmers the enormous cost of importing guano from Peru. By 1880 menhaden had also replaced whales as a source of oil, and the bits that weren’t used for oil were made into fertilizer or animal feed and shipped all over the country.
Meanwhile, wealthy landowners had permanent nets strung across rivers abutting their property, scooping up all passing fish. Unsurprisingly, fish populations declined dramatically, and by 1870, 90% were gone. Commercial fishermen and citizens desperately tried to stop permanent nets and the menhaden fleets, but wealthy interests were able to prevent any restrictions on fishing. By 1800 salmon had been fished out of New York and Connecticut, by 1840 there were no salmon south of Maine, and when the menhaden industry was finally banned in Maine in 1879, it was too late, the menhaden were gone, and the northern fishery collapsed.
Measuring from the 1860s to today, the combined weight of all the menhaden harvested is more than that of all other commercial fish—more than all the salmon, cod, tuna, halibut, herring, swordfish, flounder, snapper, anchovies, mackerel, and so on that humanity has dragged from the water in the last century and a half.
State by state, the commercial fishing industry wiped out menhaden and gone bankrupt. But it has never died out completely, because the U.S. government has spent taxpayer money to keep the industry going in states where menhaden still existed. There was no reason to do this, Franklin writes: menhaden oil, animal feed, and fertilizer have all been replaced with much cheaper petroleum and soybean substitutes. The role that menhaden play in the ocean's food chain, however, is irreplaceable.
The ocean’s hoovers, damned
One company, Omega Protein, now catches the majority of menhaden, hunting down the last few remaining schools in two of the most productive fisheries, the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay, both of which have suffered tremendous ecological damage and fishery destruction the past few decades. More than 30 Omega spotter planes direct a fleet of 61 ships to where the menhaden swim close to the surface. Omega Protein turns the aquatic herbivores into poultry feed and fishmeal for farmed salmon, two products for which there are cheaper and less devastating alternative sources.
Menhaden are not the only forage fish species being overharvested. According to the Marine Fish Conservation Network, "Globally, about 30% of all marine fish landed each year are forage fish (anchovies, sardines, hake, herring, Pollock, squid, krill) that are processed directly into fishmeal and oil and used in livestock and aquaculture feeds." The U.N Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that insatiable demand from the global aquaculture industry will outstrip the available supplies of sources of fishmeal and fish oil within the next decade.
Not only are menhaden the main food item for many fish, but they play an even more critical role in the health of any aquatic ecosystem. They filter phytoplankton out, allowing sunlight to reach the depths where aquatic plants can prosper, which increases oxygen levels, allowing shellfish and fish to thrive. When algae aren’t consumed, they erupt into toxic algal blooms, die and sink to the bottom, smothering plants and depleting oxygen. This leads to massive die-offs of all sea life within these areas and is a major contributing factor, along with agricultural run-off from the Mississippi River, to the 8,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.
If it were somehow possible to shut down the menhaden industry entirely, Franklin says, and the pitifully few populations protected and nursed back to health, then the ocean and estuaries could be cleansed, shellfish and fish populations recover, and a new sport and commercial fishing industry emerge as the dozens of fish that feast on menhaden return. Oysters, crabs, striped bass, and many other tasty species of seafood might thrive again if the oceans were cleared of toxic algal blooms. Far more jobs would be created if menhaden schools were to recover than would be lost if Omega Protein were forced to get out of the menhaden business.
No conservation organizations are trying to get rid of Omega Protein entirely. But legislatively, it's been difficult even to get the fishing limits cut back or lower the bycatch of other fish. Congressmen and commissions in Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia have bowed to pressure from Omega Protein and the aquaculture industry in their states. The Marine Fish Conservation Network reports that "on Jan. 20, the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources voted not to change any regulations or impose a catch limit on the menhaden industry. Omega’s stock rose the next day."
The MFCN, which represents over 200 conservation and fishing groups, has a comprehensive list of related legislation and a wealth of resources about the menhaden and other fish issues. Other sites where you can learn more or take action:
Alice Friedemann is an Oakland-based freelance journalist who specializes in energy. She is a member of the Northern California Science Writers Association.