The Fish at the Heart of the Food System

You have never seen a menhaden, but you have eaten one. Although no one sits down to a plate of these silvery, bug-eyed, foot-long fish at a seafood restaurant, menhaden travel through the human food chain mostly undetected in the bodies of other species, hidden in salmon, pork, onions, and many other foods.

Millions of pounds of menhaden are fished from the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico by a single company based in Houston, Texas, with a benign-sounding name: Omega Protein. The company’s profits derive largely from a process called “reduction,” which involves cooking, grinding, and chemically separating menhaden’s fat from its protein and micronutrients. These component parts become chemical inputs in aquaculture, industrial livestock, and vegetable growing. The oil- and protein-rich meal becomes animal feed. The micronutrients become crop fertilizer.

It works like this: from April to December, the tiny coastal town of Reedville, Virginia, sends dozens of fishermen into the Chesapeake Bay and the Atlantic Ocean on Omega Protein’s nine ships. Spotter pilots in small aircraft fly overhead, looking for menhaden from above, which are recognizable by the reddish shadow they leave on the water as they pack together in tight schools of tens of thousands of fish.

When menhaden are identified, the spotter pilots radio to the nearest ship and direct it to the school. Omega Protein’s fishermen dispatch two smaller boats, which trap the school with a giant net called a purse seine. When the fish are enclosed, the purse seine net is cinched tight like a drawstring. A hydraulic vacuum pump then sucks the menhaden from the net into the hold of the ship. Back at the factory, reduction begins. A similar process occurs in the Gulf of Mexico, where Omega Protein owns three reduction factories.

More menhaden are caught than any other fish in the continental United States by volume. Until recently, this massive operation and its products were almost entirely unregulated, despite a substantial ecological impact. The menhaden population has declined nearly 90 percent from the time when humans first began harvesting menhaden from Atlantic coastal and estuarine waters.

Omega Protein was hardly the first to recognize menhaden’s value. The etymology of menhaden indicates its longstanding place in food production. Its name derives from the Narragansett wordmunnawhatteaûg, which literally means “that which enriches the land.” Archeological research on Cape Cod shows that Native Americans there buried fish believed to be menhaden in their cornfields (Mrozowski 1994:47–62). William Bradford and Edward Winslow’s firsthand account from 1622 of the Pilgrims at Plymouth, Massachusetts, describes the colonists manuring their farm plots with fish “according to the manner of the Indians” (Bradford and Winslow 1622).

Entrepreneurs as early as the eighteenth century began to build small facilities to reduce menhaden into oil and meal for use in industrial and agricultural products. By the mid-twentieth century, more than two hundred of these facilities dotted the east coast of the United States and the Gulf of Mexico. For most of those years, fishermen caught menhaden using nets they hauled in by hand. But starting in the 1950s, hydraulic vacuum pumps made it possible to suck millions of menhaden from larger nets into giant tanker ships. In the past 60 years, 47 billion pounds of menhaden have been harvested from the Atlantic.