On the Importance of Menhaden

About 25 years ago I was taking the ferry to Ocracoke Island at the southern end of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Last ferry of the day. It was night. Suddenly, the ferry was surrounded by an unfathomable number of leaping, flopping fish. And the school went on, and on and on. I was absolutely stunned. It was the sort of experience that pioneers talked about when seeing the endless herds of buffalo on the Plains.

I asked a local what kind of fish these amazing creatures were.

“Ah, they're just menhaden.”

And that's kinda the story on menhaden — the amazing fish that everyone takes for granted.

Before I read the wonderful book “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” by H. Bruce Franklin, that's about all I knew about Menhaden (aka Bunker, Pogy, Bugmouth, Fat-Back and several other names). That and that everywhere you'd go on the Atlantic Coast from Virginia to Cape Cod, you'd find the ruins or site of a “fish plant.” No word on what the fish plant did, although history books of the area would usually mention how bad the smell used to be.

So what were all those “fish plants” doing? Processing menhaden by the millions and billions. For fish oil, animal feed, chemicals, what have you... a useful fish. Useful for just about anything but human food -- full of bones and sorta funky tasting.

As it turns out, at least on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, menhaden really are the most important fish in the sea. They convert the phytoplankton (small floating plants) into high-energy flesh, and thus become the primary food source for various sport fish, including bluefish. They also filter an astonishing amount of water (4 gallons per minute per adult fish), ensuring that sunlight penetrates deep enough to nurture eelgrass and that decaying phytoplankton don't choke all the oxygen out of the water. Even their dying is important -- bluefish rush into the giant schools and tear menhaden to bits, and the chunks the bluefish miss are a primary food source for crabs.

That is, if we don't catch them all and feed them to pigs and chickens (and recently, sell them to China), which is pretty much what we've been trying to do in one form or another for a couple of centuries.

The menhaden industry has dwindled to exactly one barely profitable firm, protected by the infamously boneheaded state legislature of Virginia and owned for a time by an investment firm associated with the Bush family. The effects of depleting the menhaden population are enormous. The Atlantic coast's bays and estuaries cloud up with sediment, the crabs and bluefish starve, and plankton blooms become more frequent.

But this is not another “feel bad” environmental story. Unlike, for example, cod, the menhaden is a bottom of the food chain fish, and capable of recovering quite rapidly -- if we would just let it alone. A complete ban on catching menhaden for processing in New Jersey waters seems to have led to a relatively quick recovery along parts of the coast already.

In 2007, I took another short vacation near one of Deleware's inland bays. I saw some juvenile menhaden in the bay (the way they flop out of the water is quite characteristic) and a few menhaden minnows (called "peanuts") in the surf.

In the summer of 2008, I went back and saw many more, bigger this time, flopping around and actually saw a school of adults about 50 yards off the beach. Not a huge school by historic standards, but a school. I was standing on the beach practically jumping up and down and of course no one else even noticed. That's kinda the story on menhaden.

And as a matter of fact, yes -- remember in elementary school when they taught you about the friendly Indian Squanto who showed the Pilgrims how to fertilize their corn plants by burying a fish next to each seed? Yup: menhaden.

Last Updated April 12, 2007