The Menhaden is a small forage fish whose significance to our planet is remarkably disproportionate to its tiny size. Known as “the most important fish in the sea,” menhaden filter our waters and provide forage for many of the fish species that flourish along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
But the most important fish in the sea is in danger of disappearing.
The systematic slaughter of menhaden is the industrial fisheries’ best-kept secret. Hundreds of millions of pounds of Atlantic menhaden are removed annually from our waters by Omega Protein, a company that grinds them up to sell as fish meal and pet food. In 2010 alone, Omega Protein harvested 404 million pounds of menhaden.
The population of Atlantic Menhaden has been reduced to a devastatingly low number — stocks have declined 88 percent in the last 25 years.
Scientists are seeing troubling patterns emerge as a result of the loss, including severely malnourished species of saltwater fish that normally feed on them. Striped bass, tuna, cod, bluefish, swordfish, salmon, redfish, mahi mahi, king mackerel, and many other species depend on menhaden for food.
Menhaden themselves are near the bottom of the food chain, feeding on plankton, and filtering harmful particles from our estuaries. They clean our waters at an incredible rate—some scientists have put the figure as high as four gallons a minute per adult fish!
In sum, Atlantic menhaden is a keystone species. But it has been routinely overfished for over half a century. Menhaden used to teem in our waters, shoals of them 40 miles long and two miles wide, from the surface to the sea-bed. It was the fish Squanto taught the Pilgrims to plant with corn in the 17th century. Menhaden was used to fertilize our depleted soils the century after. Eventually menhaden supplemented whaling and whale oil when that fishery was depleted (for the most part) by the 1880s.
A 2010 stock assessment by the Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission shows that menhaden have been overfished 32 out of the last 54 years. Now, a decade of industrial fishing by Omega Protein, the population is facing decimation.
Omega Protein would maintain that the public can’t do without what they supply — that our cat food costs will go through the roof, that our chickens would cost an arm and a leg, and that we would have no fish oil pills to pop. But all menhaden do is save us pennies. Other commodities, such as soybeans and waste products from the processing of oily fish food can provide what menhaden offer.
The ecosystem services that the menhaden provide to our waters are fundamental and irreplaceable. Saving the menhaden means filtering our estuaries—currently laden with algae blooms and dead zones—and making strides toward restoring our cod, striped bass, salmon, and tuna fisheries.