The Most Important Fish in the Sea – H Bruce Franklin
Menhaden are smallish, ordinary looking fish. If you asked a child to draw you a picture of a fish, they’d probably produce something that looks a lot like a menhaden. In The Most Important Fish in the Sea, H Bruce Franklin makes a forceful case that these fish are vital to the ecosystem, and allowing their overfished populations to rebuild to levels closer to pristine could be the most effective measure we can take to restore the health of the oceans.
Menhaden are found all along the western Atlantic coast, from Mexico to Canada. They are filter feeders, and move about in massive schools. This, of course, makes them incredibly easy to catch. Currently they are fished and ground up for fish meal and fish oil, which are used as animal feed, fertiliser, and those omega 3 and 6 dietary supplement pills that can cause fish oil-tainted reflux a few hours after ingestion!
None of the uses I listed above are good ones for a fish that has such important roles in the ocean ecosystem. Menhaden are remarkably fast maturing and fertile little fish, which is an excellent characteristic for a fishery that is the largest on the United States west coast. They clean the water as they feed, straining algae and plankton out of the water. This helps reduce the possibility of harmful phytoplankton blooms (which cause “dead zones”, hypoxic areas, when they die). Menhaden also serve as food for a wide range of larger predatory fish and birds, including tuna and sharks. In quite a literal sense, an entire ecosystem depends upon their presence. (They are also historically important – for example, Native Americans taught European settlers how to plant menhaden with their crops, as fertiliser – Southern Fried Science explains. For more on the fish oil subject, check out Paul Greenberg‘s article for the New York Times.)
Menhaden populations have in the past been fished almost to the point of collapse, and their range has been significantly reduced. Recently catch limits have been reduced in the United States, but even more recently they have been increased again. In The Most Important Fish in the Sea, H Bruce Franklin returns again and again to the fact that the menhaden fishery is essentially a monopoly, with a single company called Omega Protein allocated 80% of the catch quota. This leads to all kinds of problems. As Carl Safina points out, expanding the menhaden fishery benefits this one company. Menhaden left in the sea benefit a large number of companies and individuals, from whale watching operations to recreational fishers and fisheries for all the predator species (tuna, striped bass, etc.) that feed on menhaden.
The Most Important Fish in the Sea is an impassioned ode to a remarkable small fish, and an equally impassioned plea for our attention to its continued existence at levels sufficient to perform its role in the ecosystem and sustain all the species that depend upon it. As Mark Kurlansky does in Cod, Franklin places the menhaden in their historical context, and establishes the debt that we owe to these unassuming ocean inhabitants. When we destroy a species, we don’t just destroy a food source or a fertiliser ingredient or a tourist attraction and bear the economic consequences. There are cultural results, too – this book and others, like People of the Sturgeon, explain this devastating unintended consequence. Worth thinking hard about.