Quiz time. Name the most important fish in the sea. If you said tuna, halibut, flounder, marlin or swordfish, you’re wrong, at least according to H. Bruce Franklin.
If you’re unfamiliar with menhaden, you’re not alone. They are small, bony, oily, slimy and stinky. People don’t eat menhaden, though they are used as fish and crab bait.
Though people eschew menhaden, almost every predator in the ocean depends on them. Blue fin tuna in particular, eat menhaden. Schools of tuna attack unimaginably huge schools of menhaden, rip them to pieces, and swallow the good stuff. The leftovers feed striped bass, weakfish, crabs, sharks, porpoises, gulls, terns, ospreys and virtually any other meat-eating ocean predator/scavenger.
Without menhaden, the oceans would be a vastly different ecosystem. Menhaden are so prolific and important because they are primary consumers — they eat microscopic phytoplankton (algae) and organic debris — which they filter from the water through a set of finely meshed gill rakers.
They process four to eight gallons per minute through their gills. This not only procures food for the fish, but it also clarifies the water. And schools of menhaden can number in the hundreds of thousand or even millions, so they are probably the most effective water filters on the planet.
Just last month southern New Jersey experienced a menhaden fish kill of epic proportions. Warm water in Delaware Bay reduced the bay’s oxygen content, and estimates of from tens of thousands to millions of menhaden washed up on shore. A swath of menhaden eight feet wide and eight miles long littered the bayshore. The stink wafted for miles.
Menhaden have been harvested for hundreds of years. In colonial times, they were used to fertilize crops. It’s probably the fish Squanto showed early New Englanders how to bury with mounds of corn on rocky soil. In fact, Franklin points out that the Indian name for menhaden translates to “fertilizer” or “he enriches the land.”
So it should come as no surprise that agribusiness focused on menhaden as demand for fertilizer boomed. Today, one company, Omega Protein, Inc., turns menhaden into oil and meal for use in a variety of products, including fertilizer, paint, food for pets and farm animals, cosmetics and fish oil.
Menhaden schools the size of football fields are spotted by airplanes and netted by huge factory ships. Franklin worries that the day may come when menhaden, once unimaginably abundant, could disappear and forever upset the ocean’s balance of predator and prey.
Franklin’s book is an homage to a truly unappreciated species. It cleans the water and serves as the base of the marine food chain. But, factory fishing puts menhaden’s future in jeopardy.
This scenario reminds me of once “inexhaustible” numbers of passenger pigeons and herds of bison. But even with the primitive weapons of the 1800s, we exterminated passenger pigeons and drove bison to the brink in just a few decades.
It makes me wonder: just because we can do something, does that mean we should? Just because we can blow the tops off mountains to reach the coal beneath, should we? Just because we can drill an oil well 18,000 feet below the ocean floor, does that mean we should? Just because we can drill 5,000 feet below ground for natural gas, does that mean we should? Or just because we can net a million menhaden in a single haul, does that mean we should?
If profit is the only motive, then yes we should. But if society has even an inkling of a conservation ethic, then no we should not. We should show restraint, the most difficult of human virtues. Effective conservation achieves the greatest good for the most people for the longest time.
And we should heed Teddy Roosevelt’s advice: “I recognize the right and duty of this generation to develop and use our natural resources, but I do not recognize the right to waste them, or rob by wasteful use, the generations that come after us.”
(Send questions and comments to Dr. Scott Shalaway, RD 5, Cameron, WV 26033 or via e-mail at his website, http://scottshalaway.googlepages.com.)