“Animals, whom we have made our slaves, we do not like to consider our equal.”
- Charles Darwin
The sound of the waves crashing on the shore, the salty breeze and warmth of the sun kissing your skin; these among others are just a few of the reasons why people gravitate to the beach. Tourists, surfers, children, and adults look forward to splashing and swimming in the water and burying their toes in the wet sand. Many people aren’t aware as to what exactly is swimming around their ankles. Thousands of aquatic species are a part of the vast ecosystem of the Ocean. Without certain species, the ecosystem would struggle and could potentially fail. In previous chapters of this book we have learned about the Chesapeake Bay, water pollution, and a few specific species that are heavily affected by human interaction. In this chapter, we will focus on a single species, the most important fish in the sea, the Menhaden.
Menhaden have played an important role throughout history beginning with the first settlements and the pilgrims. When John Cabot discovered the new world in 1497, he also discovered a fish that would end up being one of the most useful substances to humanity. Many believe that the menhaden was the fish that the American Indian Squanto taught the pilgrims to use as fertilizer for their crops.
Figure 1 The Indians named this fish “munnawhatteaug” which directly translates to “fertilizer” or “he who enriches the land.” “What they meant by tat was simple: used in modest subsistence farming, the fish bequeathed its rich nutrients to the soil. They could hardly have imagined the scene two centuries later, when the fish they had named ‘he enriches the land’ would be converted by the billions into industrial commodities and personal wealth.” (Franklin)
Atlantic menhaden form an important link in the Chesapeake Bay food web. The small fish form large schools and are harvested commercially for bait and for an industry that uses them to produce fishmeal and fish oil.i (Chesapeake Bay Program) Menhaden are flat, have soft flesh, and a deeply forked tail. They rarely exceed 15 inches (38 cm) in length, and have a varied weight range. Gulf menhaden and Atlantic menhaden are small oily-fleshed fish, bright silver, and characterized by a series of smaller spots behind the main, humeral spot.ii (Wikipedia) Menhaden travel in large, slow-moving, and tightly-packed schools with open mouths. Filter feeders typically take into their open mouths "materials in the same proportions as they occur in ambient waters". Menhaden have two main sources of food: phytoplankton and zooplankton. A menhaden’s diet varies considerably over the course of its lifetime, and is directly related to its size. The smallest menhaden, typically those under one year old, eat primarily phytoplankton. After that age, adult menhaden gradually shift to a diet comprised almost exclusively of zooplankton.iii (Wikipedia)
Menhaden play a very large role in not only the aquatic the food chain, but also the food chain on land. Very similar to oysters, menhaden help filter the water of toxins and other pollutants. Without filtering species, our waters would be over-nourished causing things like algae-blooms. An algal bloom is a rapid increase or accumulation in the population of algae in freshwater or marine water systems, and are recognized by the discoloration in the water from their pigments. Cyanobacteria blooms are often called blue-green algae. Blooms which can injure animals or the ecology are called "harmful algal blooms" (HAB), and can lead to fish die-offs, cities cutting off water to residents, or states having to close fisheries.iv(Wikipedia)
Figure 2 Atlantic menhaden are an important link between plankton and upper level predators. Because of their filter feeding abilities, "menhaden consume and redistribute a significant amount of energy within and between Chesapeake Bay and other estuaries, and the coastal ocean." Because they play this role, and their abundance, menhaden are an invaluable prey species for many predatory fish, such as striped bass, bluefish, mackerel, flounder, tuna, Drum (fish), and sharks. They are also a very important food source for many birds, including egrets, ospreys, seagulls, northern gannets, pelicans, and herons.v (Wikipedia) Hundreds of millions of pounds of the menhaden fish are processed annually, making them the number one species fished for in the United States. Not only do they provide food for marine life, but they also provide a substantial amount of protein or dogs and cats. “Their dried-out carcasses are then pulverized, scooped into huge piles, containerized, and shipped out as feed for domestic cats and dogs, farmed fish, and, most of all, poultry and pigs.”vi(Franklin) The menhaden’s primary use in today’s world is for Omega-3 pills. Omega Protein has developed a complete line of premium, sustainable, omega-3 rich fish oil to improve the nutritional integrity of aquaculture, livestock and companion animal feed. Omega-3 fatty acids may provide a number of health and performance benefits. These essential nutrients improve immune response, support reproductive function, and reduce inflammation to improve overall health and performance.vii(Omega Protein) Menhaden reduction industry has become one of the largest corporate competitions in today’s world. Industrial fishing has become an enormous problem in the world as of today. The menhaden population is quickly depleting over time due to over-exploitation.
A very common way of harvesting menhaden is by a purse seine. A purse seine is a large wall of netting deployed around an entire area or school of fish. The seine has floats along the top line with a lead line threaded through rings along the bottom. Once a school of fish is located, a skiff encircles the school with the net. The lead line is then pulled in, "pursing" the net closed on the bottom, preventing fish from escaping by swimming downward. The catch is harvested by either hauling the net aboard or bringing it alongside the vessel.viii(NOAA Fisheries) Not only does the purse seine capture hundreds of menhaden, it can also catch things like dolphins or sea turtles. Fishing companies will throw back the injured marine life to the se without a thought as to if they will be able to survive further. This way of fishing is also very unfair to the fish being as there is no possible way for them to escape it. Purse Seining is very inhumane and cruel and we should work to make it illegal for large fishing corporations.
Figure 3 Lee Crockett of The Pew Charitable Trusts writes “Anglers like me are often impressed with size. We seek out the largest fish, revel in stories about the “big one” that got away, and proudly display photos of our most impressive catches. But it’s a small, unassuming fish, the Atlantic menhaden, which forms the backbone of ecosystems and economies along the East Coast of the United States. Unfortunately, after decades of poorly regulated fishing, menhaden are in serious trouble.”ix Many organizations like Lee’s are working tirelessly to build awareness to the importance of the menhaden and the serious effects that its eventual extinction would have on certain ecosystems and our food chain as a whole. It is very important that people begin to open their eyes to the problem that is at hand.
One may ask what laws are in place currently to try to prevent the extinction of menhaden. The Atlantic menhaden fishery is managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's (ASMFC) Atlantic Menhaden Management Board, which tracks and regulates harvest under Amendment 2 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic menhaden. In May 2015, the Board approved a total allowable catch (TAC) of 187,880 metric tons per year for 2015 and 2016 for the entire Atlantic Coast, including the Chesapeake Bay.x(NOAA) Fisheries are expected to close when they have reached the amount allowed and will be fined and potentially shut down if caught. It’s time for people to realize damage quickly being done to our waters as a result of loss of menhaden. We could potentially witness the loss of a great species in our lifetime due to human interaction. Contact your legislature and local businesses to see what they can do to help. Together, we can save this spectacular species.
i Program, Chesapeake Bay. "Chesapeake Bay Program." Bay Blog RSS. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.
vi Franklin, H. Bruce. The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America. Washington: Island/Shearwater, 2007. Print. page 6
vii "Leading Producer of Menhaden Fish Oil- Omega Protein." Omega Protein. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.
viii "Purse Seine: Fishing Gear and Risks to Protected Species." NOAA Fisheries. N.p., n.d. Web.
ix "Overfishing 101: A Small Fish With Big Problems – National ..." N.p., n.d. Web. 7 Nov. 2016.
x Administrator, and Blue Water Media, Inc., (202)861-0000, Www.bluewatermedia.com. "Menhaden - Fish Facts - Chesapeakebay.noaa.gov." Menhaden - Fish Facts - Chesapeakebay.noaa.gov. N.p., n.d. Web. 07 Nov. 2016.