Menhaden: America’s Most Important Fish

It may not seem like it at first glance, but the little menhaden is one heck of a fish. So much so that many consider it the most important fish in the United States. Let’s put it this way: if the little engine that could was a fish, it would be this one.

Menhaden have secured their position at the bottom of the aquatic food chain, and are perhaps the best equipped for such a task. Small in size (typically not much larger than a foot in length), menhaden are the principal herbivores of the sea and feed mainly off of phytoplankton, algae and other sea debris.  In doing so they act as natural filters, cleaning the murky water and allowing for sunlight to reach plants deep under the water. These plants can then “breathe” life back into the water and to all the fish and shellfish that depend on it for life.

Additionally, many larger predatory animals rely on a diet of menhaden as their primary food source. Striped bass, bluefish tuna, whales and porpoises need the schools of menhaden in order to survive.

The history of menhaden’s use in human culture dates far back to (at least) the Pilgrims and the New World. The fish, whose major spawning area stretches off the Atlantic coast of New Jersey down to the Carolinas, was used by many Native Americans (and in time copied by the Pilgrims) as a fertilizer for crops. Menhaden is even the Native American word for “fertilizer.”

This practice of using the fish as compost had almost been forgotten until 1792, when it resurfaced again due to its mention in an article written about the method. Afterwards, it grew to such popularity that tons of the ground fish was brought miles inland and used on fields there.

Nowadays, the menhaden population has been in a rapid decline spurred on primarily by overfishing. According to a 2009 stock assessment taken by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), “Menhaden abundance is down 86% in [the] last 30 years and down 88% in the last 25 years.”

One of the major culprits of this decline is Omega Protein, Inc.

According to Menhaden Defenders, a group dedicated to protecting populations of menhaden off the eastern coast of the United States, Omega Protein is responsible for the overfishing of menhaden at a rate faster than the fish could reproduce and sustain itself.

Just last year, the company was able to fish roughly 404 million pounds of menhaden out of their coastal Atlantic waters.  Their catch is then turned into fish oil and supplements in addition to becoming “poultry feed and fishmeal for farmed salmon.”  The most typically targeted of the menhaden are the older and larger fish—a low blow to a species whose ability to reproduce increases as they become older—“making it unlikely that an adult menhaden will reproduce once, if at all.”

And as the ocean empties, the company’s pocketbook is getting more and more full every year—“The company’s annual harvest is worth more than $168 million…Revenues for 2011 are projected at $218 million.”

To help protect the menhaden, ask the ASMFC to put a cap on Omega Protein’s overfishing and sign the petition here.

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