The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America

H. Bruce Franklin

The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America (Washington, DC: Island Press, 2007)

In this remarkable book, H. Bruce Franklin explores the fascinating history of Atlantic and Gulf menhaden – “the fish whose oil literally greased the wheels” of manufacturing. Franklin, a Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University, plays the role of muckracker for one of the ocean’s most unsung heroes. Some annual hauls for “the nation’s largest fishery” weighed more than all other finfish combined. Schools of menhaden can “weigh as much as the largest whale,” and menhaden are “prime contenders for the global championship in phytoplankton consumption.” In chapter after chapter, Franklin transforms his fish facts into meaningful drama, confirming his book title’s veracity.

The book opens with a frenzied scene of bluefish slashing at the bodies of menhaden in a “killing frenzy.” Franklin describes the menhaden as desperately racing “like a single creature, erratically zigging and zagging, diving and surfacing, pursued relentlessly by fish and birds.” Naturalist Gilbert Klingel describes menhaden at the slightest motion breaking into “terror-stricken flight; instantly the mechanisms of fear take hold of the entire school and the hysteria is communicated from one individual to another until the entire mass is transformed into a blurred deluge of frenzied fish.”

Menhaden are relatively small, very oily, foul smelling, and full of tiny bones. Atlantic stocks reach a maximum size of approximately fifteen inches. According to the Chesapeake Bay Foundation’s website, these schooling fish are “one of the most abundant species of finfish in estuarine and coastal Atlantic waters. The second most important species harvested in the United States in terms of quantity, it is processed for its oil, protein meal and solubles, and is used as bait for commercial and recreational fishing. Menhaden are consumers of phytoplankton and plant detritus, and, in turn, are fed upon by many predatory fish, mammals and birds.”

This fish tale is primarily an exploration of industrialization and why overexploitation spells ecological peril. Franklin begins with the story of Native Americans instructing the Pilgrims and other colonists to fertilize farm fields with menhaden. By the late 19th century, menhaden became an important source of Atlantic wealth. The fishery was the “vanguard” of fishery industrialization in post-Civil War America. It led the way for other fisheries in technological innovation and industrial integration. In 1876, half a billion menhaden were processed in 99 factories. Menhaden was a cheap substitute for industrial oils, while the remaining dried fish was used as agricultural fertilizer. Menhaden became a major U.S. industry, “far exceeding the whale industry in importance.” Menhaden capitalists were “the richest to be found in the provincial towns of New–England and on Long Island,” constituting a “bony-fish aristocracy of the country.” Later in the century, “hundreds of menhaden factories belched their black smoke and stench.” Workmen on Long Island were “almost entirely Virginia Negroes, who return South at the close of the fisheries in autumn.”

Chapter five reviews the ideological development of menhaden natural resource management. An 1880 menhaden study by G. Brown Goode was “the first major study of any American fish or fishery.” Goode argued that a table of bluefish, swordfish, bass, or cod was “nothing but menhaden.” Franklin notes it would be “hard to overstate the importance” of that insight which prefigures “an emerging ecological consciousness.” By this time, commercial fishermen were complaining that menhaden boats were wiping out their bait. Conflicts over resource allocation turned ideological; were the ocean’s fisheries inexhaustible or in need of conservation? Franklin explores how “the concept of protecting prey in order to conserve predators demanded a revolution in thinking.”

World War II brought new technological innovations to the industry; spotter planes were deployed to locate fish schools. The peak harvest for Atlantic menhaden was 712,000 metric tons in 1956. The North Atlantic peak was 98,500 metric tons, also in 1956. The planes’ efficiency decimated remaining fish stocks. North Atlantic harvests crashed to 1,800 metric tons in 1966 and zero in 1967. By chapter seven, Franklin describes an industry in ruins – disintegrating fish factories and rotting vessels.

Today’s ecologists frame menhaden as keystone marine species. They are a critical food source for many fish; scientists now link declines in menhaden stocks to increased incidence of disease in predator fish. Menhaden are also important filter feeders; they improve the water’s clarity and reduce eutrophication in coastal waters. A particularly nasty cycle of degradation involves menhaden being “ground up and fed to the big chicken farms on Maryland’s Eastern Shore. Chicken manure from these chicken farms is the dominant source of the nitrogen entering the Chesapeake from the Eastern Shore. The nitrogen triggers the Pfiesteria which then infects the menhaden.”

The book concludes with a contemporary story of industrial exploitation. The menhaden industry has gone through many transformations and no longer produces agricultural fertilizer. Today Omega Protein, the only menhaden company left on the Atlantic seaboard, processes menhaden into various products including fish meal and omega-3 nutritional products. Omega Protein was originally a subsidiary of the Zapata Corporation which monopolized the menhaden industry in the 1990s. The company still uses spotter planes to hunt down fish locations. The fish are hauled into boats that can “hold more than a million menhaden.”

Despite tremendous reductions, wild menhaden remain “the nation’s largest fishery in numbers of fish caught” and are second to Alaskan pollock in tonnage. Since the fish has little competition for its phytoplankton food source, its numbers can quickly rebound if stricter limits are imposed on the industry. Franklin complains that fishery councils are notorious for the control that the industry exercises over its own regulation. Their species specific management plans deny “the most elementary understanding of marine ecology.” Yet, many states have already banned menhaden trawlers from state waters. The main exception in the Atlantic is Virginia, which allows Omega Protein to overexploit menhaden in Chesapeake Bay. Omega Protein has facilities in Reedville, VA and wraps “itself in the mantle of the Puritan work ethic, portraying itself as a representative of the working class, and caricaturing recreational fishers as a wealthy elite.”

Franklin’s story of marine ecology and industrial exploitation is a cautionary tale about our world. The menhaden crisis is unfolding during a period of unprecedented oceanic and global ecological catastrophe. Industrialized fisheries are decimating global fish stocks yet they continue to benefit from their tremendous power as lobbyists, employers, commodity producers, and advertisers.

One solution is to form broad-based political coalitions. Franklin is a recreational fisher. He notes that recreational anglers are “among the very first to notice” collapsing fish stocks and are the “largest constituency” concerned about coastal waters. But can “meat fishermen” and “uncompromising” animal rights activists work together? Yes, they all have an interest in “limiting, or maybe even abolishing, the [menhaden] reduction industry.” Franklin recounts the transformative effect that Greenpeace had on a Chesapeake Bay demonstration in 2005; they proved adept at uniting “anglers, watermen, scientists and environmentalists.” This suggests “the potential for an alliance that could change the course not just for menhaden but for the whole marine environment—and maybe even beyond.”

Franklin does not sufficiently explore this potential for new and transformative alliances, but he writes with intelligence and passion. This book is packed, page after page, with informative stories and geographic references about this small fish and the industries that sprang up along the Atlantic and Gulf Coast to exploit it. Franklin helps us rediscover an unsung marine species deserving of our attention and conservation.

Reviewed by Scott Carlin
C.W. Post Campus, Long Island University

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