Menhaden are the most important, though humble, fish in the sea
"Bunker" reads the sign, hand-printed on cardboard, above the cooler in
Ocracoke Island’s Tradewinds Bait and Tackle Shop. A fisherman comes
in, wind-blown and slightly damp, and opens the cooler.
up silvery fish, he looks up at the gentleman behind the counter.
affirmative "caught this morning," he scoops several into a bag and
lays them on the scale, which registers $1.75 per pound.
He will cut
chunks and use them to go fishing for prize red drum later this
fisherman’s wife, waiting back at the motel, takes out her bag of
vitamins and health supplements. She holds up a bottle of omega-3 rich
fish oil and reads it before removing a capsule and popping it into her
mouth. The label says that it can help prevent heart disease,
Alzheimer’s, and depression.
container likewise labeled to contain fish oil. It has a picture of a
healthy dog on it, and promises to improve your dog’s skin condition
and reduce shedding. She pops one of these pills down her Labrador
retriever’s throat. Were she to look closer, she would see that the
little fish pictured on the boxes looks exactly like the fish her
husband is buying for bait.
Tradewinds is otherwise known as menhaden, fatbacks, alewives, or
Brevoortia tyrannus to scientists and had been caught as bycatch in one
of the local fisherman’s gill nets.
considered a major fishery at Ocracoke. When netted in spring, they are
often sold to crabbers to use as bait, and they are popular with sports
fishermen, such as the ones at Tradewinds.
a huge demand for these small herring, and according to the Chesapeake
Bay Ecological Foundation, they are the second most important species
harvested in the United States (after the Pacific pollock) in terms of
been caught and processed for use as fertilizer -- the name menhaden
actually derives from the Algonquin word for fertilizer, or manure --,
dog and chicken food, oil, and solubles. According to writer Tim
Padgett, "recent studies indicate that overfishing has been occurring
health research has recently brought about another huge market for
these fish, along with other oily fish, such as sardines, mackerel, and
salmon. Vast quantities are harvested to be processed, bottled and
marketed as omega-3 rich fatty acids, or fish oil. Since 2006,
according to Padgett, the U.S. market for these supplements has
doubled, and American consumers spend billions of dollars not just on
the supplements themselves but for products such as orange juice, baby
food, and cereals with fish oils added.
this may be
good for human health, it could be catastrophic for the species and for
the marine ecosystems dependent on it.
ecologists, menhaden are a critical link in the food chain, providing
food for larger fish, for birds such as pelicans and loons, and for
dolphins and harbor seals. They also play an important part in keeping
the oceans clean. They are filter-feeders, eating algae which, while
good for human health, can cause oxygen-depleting algal blooms which
lead to dead zones in Atlantic and Gulf waters. Menhaden can filter up
to seven gallons of water per minute as they feed.
Theodosius Dobzhansky, expressing his impression of their importance,
said that "nothing in fisheries makes sense except in light of the
belong to the family of bony fish known as clupeidai, or herrings,
which are highly specialized schooling fish with primitive origins.
Small fish, seldom reaching more than 14 inches, they range from Nova
Scotia to Florida. They have long, closely set gill rakers that allow
them to filter out the plankton which makes up most of their diet.
Spawning in the ocean in winter, they count on winds and currents to
carry their eggs and larvae up estuarine creeks to brackish waters
where the juveniles feed and grow before returning to the sounds and
later the ocean.
Franklin of Rutgers University thought the menhaden important enough to
author a book about it in 2008, “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.”
In it, he points out that menhaden are being fished out on a global
scale and may be in danger of extinction.
At one time
were observed in schools several miles long and millions of fish deep.
Soon after the Civil War, the purse seine was introduced so that they
could be netted in large numbers, and their decline began. While they
have remained fairly stable since the 1050s, they have never returned
to their pre-factory fishing days.
to be a
number of menhaden processing factories on the Atlantic coast,
including one at Beaufort, N.C., which provided hundreds of jobs for
residents there. There is only one shoreside reduction plant left now,
located in the Chesapeake Bay at Reedsville, Va.
percent of the
country’s menhaden are now caught and processed by a company in Texas.
The Houston-based fish oil company, "Omega Protein," has been banned
from the waters of 13 Atlantic states because of concerns about the
consuming fish oil
products could be bad for the ocean, what options do health conscious
possibilities. Flaxseed and canola oils contain alphalinolenic acid
(ALA), one of the omega-3 acids in fish oil. They do not, however, have
docosahexaenoic acid (DHA) or eicosapentaenoic acid (EPA), which are
probably the more beneficial of the acids.
may be in
harvesting or producing algae, the same algae from which oily fish
derive their omega-3-rich acids when they are filter-feeding. It is
possible, according to Padgett’s article on going green, to derive most
of the benefits, including DHA and EPA, from the algae itself, instead
of from the fish which feed on them.
including a Maryland biotech company known as Martek, are experimenting
with farming different algal strains in huge tanks, and are marketing a
healthful combination of algae and seed oils for public consumption.
the importance of the little fish known as bunker, or menhaden, and
their plight, along with knowledge about other options for obtaining
omega-3 acids, could prevent destructive overfishing and the loss of
one of our most important marine species.