Image from Maine Department of Marine Resources.
Menhaden, Brevoortia tyrannus, is, without a doubt, the single most important fish in the western Atlantic. This oily filter-feeder swims in schools so large that they block the sun from penetrating the water’s surface as it regulates ocean health. Earlier this week, we were greeted by news that menhaden stocks were rebounded, yet despite their near-universal importance in the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, most Americans have near heard of a menhaden.
Let’s fix that. Here are six reasons you should know what a menhaden is.
1. Menhaden go by many names.
The Narragansett called them munnawhatteaug. Colonists called them poghaden, bony-fish, whitefish, pogy, mossbunker, fat-bat. Perhaps most endearingly, menhaden were called bug-heads, thanks to the parasitic isopod that was often found in place of their tongues. They have also been called “the most important fish in the sea“.
A menhaden, image courtesy Pew Environment Group
Despite their small size and plain appearance, menhaden have been called “the most important fish in the sea” because numerous coastal fish species rely on them for food. Although they aren’t typically eaten by humans, there is still a huge fishery for them for bait, aquaculture food, and oil. That fishery has been essentially unregulated, allowing fishermen to take as many as they want. Recently, there’s been a campaign among certain environmental groups to fix this problem and put catch limits in place for menhaden.
I was surprised to see PolitiFact, a non-partisan political fact-checking website, address this issue. I’ve checked PolitiFact pretty regularly for years, and I’ve never seen them cover a topic like this before. They focused on a claim by the Pew Environment Group that “In recent years, menhaden numbers along our coast have plummeted by 90 percent.” While I admit I am not familiar with specific details of menhaden population trends, anyone who has paid any attention at all to the ocean knows that we’re overfishing at alarming rates. According to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, approximately 1/3 of all global fisheries are depleted or overexploited, many by more than the 90% referenced for menhaden. Shockingly, PolitiFact called the claim by Pew “mostly false”. Their reasoning for this ruling is even more ridiculous than the ruling itself:
Yesterday, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council voted to reduce the catch of Menhaden by as much as 37%. Menhaden, often referred to as the “most important fish in the sea” have been declining precipitously over the last several decades, due largely to the Menhaden reduction industry, which is now supported by a single company. Several graphs have been produced recently to illustrate this decline, including this incredibly informative illustration. Despite this attention, most of these reports have missed the big picture. Amy and myself have been thinking quite a bit about shifting baselines recently, and Menhaden represent what may be the most extreme example of this phenomenon.
The population of Menhaden along the eastern seaboard crashed in 1879 a full century earlier than the decline documented here. In it’s heyday, the menhaden industry was catching seven hundred million fish annually. Last years harvest was barely 450 million. These numbers belie a massive ecologic change. While the historic menhaden industry was based north of Cape Cod, our current menhaden production focusses on the mid-Atlantic seaboard and is slowly moving south, chasing the remaining fish. The population that today has finally received protection is a remnant of the once massive foundation of the pelagic ecosystem.
Reprinted below is our original article, the Menhaden of History.
Menhaden were the most important fisheries throughout American history. When the first settlers learn to farm corn, it was with menhaden that they fertilized the seeds. When the whaling industry reached its height, it was outweighed by menhaden oil. Menhaden ruled the ocean from the middle of the food chain, they were the dominant prey of most large predatory fish. They swarmed the sea in schools several miles long and millions of fish deep. Their huge biomass supported by plankton, they regulated algal blooms, mediated the transfer of primary production up the food chain, filtered the ocean.