The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America

The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America

by H. Bruce Franklin

View All Available Formats & Editions

In this brilliant portrait of the oceans’ unlikely hero, H. Bruce Franklin shows how menhaden have shaped America’s national—and natural—history, and why reckless overfishing now threatens their place in both. Since Native Americans began using menhaden as fertilizer, this amazing fish has greased the wheels of U.S. agriculture and industry.

…  See more details below


In this brilliant portrait of the oceans’ unlikely hero, H. Bruce Franklin shows how menhaden have shaped America’s national—and natural—history, and why reckless overfishing now threatens their place in both. Since Native Americans began using menhaden as fertilizer, this amazing fish has greased the wheels of U.S. agriculture and industry. By the mid-1870s, menhaden had replaced whales as a principal source of industrial lubricant, with hundreds of ships and dozens of factories along the eastern seaboard working feverishly to produce fish oil. Since the Civil War, menhaden have provided the largest catch of any American fishery. Today, one company—Omega Protein—has a monopoly on the menhaden “reduction industry.” Every year it sweeps billions of fish from the sea, grinds them up, and turns them into animal feed, fertilizer, and oil used in everything from linoleum to health-food supplements.
The massive harvest wouldn’t be such a problem if menhaden were only good for making lipstick and soap. But they are crucial to the diet of bigger fish and they filter the waters of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, playing an essential dual role in marine ecology perhaps unmatched anywhere on the planet. As their numbers have plummeted, fish and birds dependent on them have been decimatedand toxic algae have begun to choke our bays and seas. In Franklin’s vibrant prose, the decline of a once ubiquitous fish becomes an adventure story, an exploration of the U.S. political economy, a groundbreaking history of America’s emerging ecological consciousness, and an inspiring vision of a growing alliance between environmentalists and recreational anglers.

Read More

Editorial Reviews

Baltimore Sun

"Franklin's book on the runty menhaden is a killer whale achievement. It's an eloquent call to end the phony business of incremental regulation of fisheries that are rapidly being driven by industry into the abyss."
Newark Star-Ledger

"This a fascinating, chilling and yet hopeful account of fish we need for the health of our marine environment."
Philadelphia Inquirer

"Franklin makes the case—persuasively—that the menhaden's role in marine ecology, and its story of decline, is 'perhaps unmatched anywhere on the planet.'"
Plenty magazine

"Franklin shows how anglers and environmentalists can work together to preserve this crucial species."
Natural History magazine

"Franklin's book is thus not merely an elegant and erudite study of a moribund industry, but an impassioned plea to return our ailing East Coast waters to a state of healthy equilibrium."

". . .an optimistic book. It deals with a resilient little thing that, unlike larger, longer-lived species such as cod, readily bounces back if given the chance."
The Washington Post

"'prose is lucid and infused with an urgency that depends little on hyperbole and largely on careful documentation. His compelling narrative informs and enlightens."
author of Striper Wars and Eye of the Whale - Dick Russell

"The history of this fish's exploitation for fertilizer and to manufacture numerous products is a fascinating slice of Americana. How menhaden have fallen prey today to a single corporation—with potentially catastrophic effects to the ecosystem—is a saga that will outrage every conservation-minded citizen."
Harvard University, author of The Environmental Imagination - Lawrence Buell

"How is it possible that a sizeable fish vital to the oceanic food chain and intertwined for three centuries with the cultural histories of both natives and settlers could nevertheless completely escape the notice of most Americans and within a few short years be driven to the brink of extinction for no valid reason whatever? This well researched and vigorously written book—certain to be of wide interest to academic and general readers alike—will tell you why."
Conservation Editor, Fly Rod & Reel, Editor-at-Large, Audubon - Ted Williams

"By 1880 there were almost three times more menhaden ships than whaling ships, but since then only three authors have written books about menhaden, and only Bruce Franklin has told the real story. The Most Important Fish in the Sea is a valuable history, a desperately needed warning and a terrific read."
author of The Empty Ocean and Tiger Bone & Rhino Horn - Richard Ellis

"When I was growing up, the Atlantic beaches were occasionally decorated with ranks of dead, smelly menhaden, which we knew as 'mossbunkers.' It took this marvelous book to reveal the ecological, nutritional, and economic significance of Brevoortia tyrannus. Who would have thought that the mossbunker, almost inedible because of its oily flesh, would be one of the most important components of America's commercial fisheries and the health of its coastal waters?"
Washington Post - Susan P. Williams

Franklin's "'prose is lucid and infused with an urgency that depends little on hyperbole and largely on careful documentation. His compelling narrative informs and enlightens."

Newark Star-Ledger - Patricia Turner

"This a fascinating, chilling and yet hopeful account of fish we need for the health of our marine environment."

Baltimore Sun - Tom Pelton

"Franklin's book on the runty menhaden is a killer whale achievement. It's an eloquent call to end the phony business of incremental regulation of fisheries that are rapidly being driven by industry into the abyss."

Washington Post

Franklin''s "''prose is lucid and infused with an urgency that depends little on hyperbole and largely on careful documentation. His compelling narrative informs and enlightens."

— Susan P. Williams

Read More

Product Details

Island Press
Publication date:
Edition description:
Sales rank:
Product dimensions:
5.50(w) x 8.60(h) x 0.70(d)

Read an Excerpt

The Most Important Fish in the Sea

Menhaden and America

By H. Bruce Franklin


Copyright © 2007 H. Bruce Franklin
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-59726-507-2


Now You See Them, Now You Don't

First you see the birds—gulls and terns wheeling overhead, then swooping down to a wide expanse of water dimpled as though by large raindrops and glittering with silver streaks. The sea erupts with frothy splashes, some from the diving birds, others from foot-long fish with deeply forked tails frantically hurling themselves out of the water, only to fall back into their tightly packed school. More and more birds materialize as if from nowhere, and the air rings with their shrill screams. Boats too begin to converge on the scene: the boiling cloud of birds has told anglers everywhere within view that a school of menhaden, perhaps numbering in the tens of thousands, is being ravaged by a school of bluefish.

Attacking from below and behind to slash the menhaden bodies with their powerful jaws, the razor-toothed blues are in a killing frenzy, gorging themselves with the severed backs and bellies of their prey, some killing even when they are too full to eat, some vomiting half-digested pieces so they can kill and eat again. Terns skim gracefully over the surface with their pointed bills down, dipping to pluck bits of flesh and entrails from the bloody swirls. Gulls plummet and flop heavily into the water, where a few splash about and squabble noisily over larger morsels. As some lift with their prizes, the squabbles turn aerial and a piece occasionally falls back into the water, starting a new round of shrieking skirmishes. Hovering high above the other birds, a male osprey scans for targets beneath the surface, then suddenly folds its gull-shaped wings and power-dives through the aerial tumult, extends its legs and raises its wings high over its head an instant before knifing into the water in a plume of spray, emerges in another plume, and laboriously flaps its four-foot wingspan as it slowly climbs and soars away with a writhing menhaden held headfirst in its talons. Beneath the blues, iridescent weakfish begin to circle, snapping at small lumps sinking from the carnage. Farther below, giant but toothless striped bass gobble tumbling heads and other chunks too big for the mouths of the weakfish. From time to time, bass muscle their way up through the blues, swallow whole menhaden alive, and propel themselves back down with their broom-like tails, leaving telltale swirls on the surface. On the mud below, crabs scuttle to scavenge on leftovers.

The panicked school of menhaden desperately races like a single creature, erratically zigging and zagging, diving and surfacing, pursued relentlessly by fish and birds. Small boats follow the chase, with excited anglers shouting and casting lures that mimic the darting menhaden. Fishing rods are bent double as some of the marauding bluefish and striped bass strike the lures. Bluefish battle until they are finally hooked with gaffs and brought aboard boats, where their blood splatters decks and jubilant anglers.

Then, as suddenly as it began, the wild scene dissipates. The water becomes surprisingly tranquil, disturbed only by wind and wave and the wakes of departing boats. Except for a few gulls lazily circling down and settling on the surface, the birds have disappeared.

The menhaden school survives and swims on, its losses dwarfed by plentitude. But a greater danger than predatory fish lurks nearby.

The birds have attracted a spotter-plane pilot who works for Omega Protein, a Houston-based corporation that does nothing but catch vast numbers of menhaden and turn their flesh into manufactured products. As the pilot approaches, he sees the school as a neatly defined purplish mass the size of a football field. He radios to a nearby ship, whose 170-foot hull can hold more than a million menhaden. The ship maneuvers close enough to launch two forty-foot-long aluminum boats. The boats share a single purse seine—a net almost a third of a mile long threaded with lines to close it up like a purse. The pilot directs the boats as they swing in a wide arc away from each other to deploy the purse seine, surrounding and trapping the entire school. Hydraulic power equipment begins to tighten the seine. As the fish strike the net, they thrash frantically, churning up a wall of white froth that marks the net's inexorably shrinking circumference. The net may now contain tens of thousands of menhaden. The factory ship pulls alongside, inserts a giant vacuum tube into the midst of the trapped fish, sucks and pumps the menhaden into its refrigerated hold, and soon heads off to unload them at the Omega port and factory complex in Reedville, Virginia. There the fish will become part of the hundreds of millions of pounds of menhaden annually processed in this tiny town on Cockrell's Creek, thus making it in tonnage the second-largest fishing port in the United States.

Not one of these fish is destined for a supermarket, a canning factory, or a restaurant. Menhaden are oily, foul smelling, and packed with tiny bones. No one eats them—not directly, anyhow. Hardly anyone has even heard of them except for those who fish or study our eastern and southern salt waters. Yet menhaden are the principal fish caught along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, exceeding the tonnage of all other species combined.

Almost all of these fish are caught by Omega Protein, which has a nearly total monopoly on what is known as the menhaden reduction industry. Omega's fleet of sixty-one ships and thirty-two spotter planes annually captures billions of menhaden. At the company's five production facilities in Virginia, Louisiana, and Mississippi, these hundreds of thousands of tons of fish are converted into industrial commodities—hence the term "reduction." The menhaden are "reduced" into oil, solids, and meal. The oil from their bodies is pressed out for use in cosmetics, linoleum, health food supplements, lubricants, margarine, soap, insecticide, and paints. 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.

Menhaden have always been an integral, if unheralded, part of America's history. This was the fish that Native Americans taught the Pilgrims to plant with their corn. This was the fish that made larger-scale agriculture viable in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries for those farming the rocky soils of New England and Long Island. As the industrial revolution transformed the nation, this was the fish whose oil literally greased the wheels of manufacture, supplanting whale oil as a principal industrial lubricant and additive by the 1870s. Hundreds of ships hunted schools, schools sometimes forty miles long, up and down the coast from Maine to Florida. Strewn along the entire eastern seaboard, dozens of factories processed the fish into oil and fertilizer, making the menhaden fishery itself one of nineteenth-century America's largest industries. During the First World War, the U.S. Navy helped guide the menhaden fleets to their prey. In the middle of the twentieth century, National Geographic and LIFE magazines were headlining menhaden as "Uncle Sam's Top Commercial Fish" and "Biggest Ocean Harvest." In the twenty-first century, Omega Protein's annual catch still exceeds that of those hundreds of nineteenth-century vessels, though most of the menhaden now come from the Gulf of Mexico, not the Atlantic. Overall, from the 1860s to the present, catching menhaden has been far and away the nation's largest fishery. In fact, during many of these decades and years, the annual haul of menhaden weighed more than the combined commercial catch of all other finned fish put together, including Atlantic and Pacific cod, tuna, salmon, halibut, pollock, herring, swordfish, haddock, ocean perch, flounder, scup, striped bass, whiting, croaker, snapper, sardines, anchovies, dogfish, and mackerel.

All these roles menhaden have played in America's national history are just minor parts of a much larger story of menhaden in America's natural history. For menhaden play dual roles in marine ecology perhaps unmatched anywhere on the planet. And this is why the story of menhaden is the tale of the most important fish in North America.

Although hardly any of those hundreds of billions of captured menhaden have ever been caught to eat, we do eat them. No, you won't see menhaden in the fish market or supermarket seafood section, but they are present in the flesh of many other fish lying there on the ice. Menhaden are crucial to the diet of Atlantic tuna, cod, haddock, halibut, mackerel, bluefish, weakfish, striped bass, swordfish, king mackerel, summer flounder, drum, and other predatory fish. The great nineteenth-century ichthyologist G. Brown Goode exaggerated only slightly when he declared that people who dine on Atlantic saltwater fish are eating "nothing but menhaden."

Menhaden are also a major component of the diet of many marine birds and mammals, including porpoises and toothed whales. In his monumental volume A History of the Menhaden, published in 1880, Goode expressed his wonderment at menhaden's role in the natural world: "It is not hard to surmise the menhaden's place in nature; swarming our waters in countless myriads, swimming in closely-packed, unwieldy masses, helpless as flocks of sheep, close to the surface and at the mercy of any enemy, destitute of means of defense or offense, their mission is unmistakably to be eaten."

But Goode was only half right. What he did not fathom was menhaden's other—equally stupendous mission—in marine ecology.

Where did this enormous biomass of menhaden, so crucial to the food chain above it, come from? Just as all those saltwater fish are composed largely of menhaden, all those menhaden are composed largely of plankton, including vast amounts of phytoplankton, tiny particles of vegetable matter, mainly algae. For menhaden, eating is just as crucial an ecological mission as being eaten.

Eons before humans arrived in North America, menhaden evolved along the low-lying Atlantic and Gulf coasts, where nutrients flood into estuaries, bays, and wetlands, stimulating potentially overwhelming growth of phytoplankton. From this superabundance of phytoplankton emerged the superabundance of these fish—and the fish that eat these fish. Although menhaden are the major herbivorous fish of these coasts, they don't chomp on the plants they consume. They are filter feeders that live primarily on tiny or even microscopic plants and other suspended matter, much of it indigestible or toxic to most other aquatic animals. Dense schools of menhaden, sometimes numbering in the hundreds of thousands, pour through these waters, toothless mouths agape, slurping up plankton, cellulose, and just plain detritus like a colossal submarine vacuum cleaner as wide as a city block and as deep as a train tunnel. Each adult fish filters about four gallons of water a minute. Purging suspended particles that cause turbidity, this filter feeding clarifies the water, allowing sunlight to penetrate. This in turn encourages the growth of aquatic plants that release dissolved oxygen while also harboring a host of fish and shellfish.

Even more important, the menhaden's filter feeding may also possibly prevent or limit devastating algal blooms. Most of the phytoplankton consumed by menhaden consists of algae. Excess nitrogen can make algae grow out of control, and that's what happens when overwhelming quantities of nitrogen flood into our inshore waters from runoff fed by paved surfaces, roofs, detergent-laden wastewater, over-fertilized golf courses and suburban lawns, and industrial poultry and pig farms. This can generate deadly blooms of algae, such as red tide and brown tide, which cause massive fish kills, then sink in thick carpets to the bottom, where they smother plants and shellfish, suck dissolved oxygen from the water, and leave dead zones that expand year by year.

In the natural ecosystem, the bonanza of phytoplankton stimulated a tremendous profusion of another filter-feeding consumer of algae: oysters. These two wonderful filter feeders kept inshore waters clear, clean, balanced, and healthy: oysters clinging to the bottom and menhaden cruising through all the upper layers. But oysters have been driven to near extinction in many bays and estuaries by overfishing and pollution. Clams and mussels also filter-feed on the algae, but neither has the enormous mass of the bygone oyster reefs or the gargantuan menhaden schools. The only remaining significant checks on the phytoplankton that cause algal blooms and dead zones are those menhaden schools, and they are now threatened by the ravages of unrestrained industrial fishing. By the end of the twentieth century, the population and range of Atlantic menhaden had virtually collapsed. The estimated number of sexually mature adult fish had crashed to less than 13 percent of what it had been four decades earlier. Although northern New England had once been the scene of the largest menhaden fishery, adult fish had not been sighted north of Cape Cod since 1993.

Marine biologist Sara Gottlieb, author of a groundbreaking study on menhaden's filtering capability, compares their role with the human liver's: "Just as your body needs its liver to filter out toxins, ecosystems also need those natural filters." Overfishing menhaden, she says, "is just like removing your liver."

If a healthy person needs a fully functioning liver, consider someone whose body is subjected to unusual amounts of toxins—just like our Atlantic and Gulf coasts. If menhaden are the liver of these waters, should we continue to allow huge chunks to be cut out each year, cooked into industrial oils, and ground up to be fed to chickens, pigs, and pets? Menhaden have managed to survive centuries of relentless natural and human predation. But now there are ominous signs that we may have pushed our most important fish to the brink of an ecological catastrophe.


The New World of Fish

The Fish They Came For

When Giovanni Cabotto, better known as John Cabot, "discovered" North America for England's King Henry VII in 1497, what he actually found was a rather desolate island he called "New Found Land" adjacent to seas teeming with fish. Excited stories about these fish spread like feverish rumors of gold in a Europe bursting out of feudalism and prowling with mercantile capitalists craving new sources of wealth. The Duke of Milan received this report from his ambassador to England about that epic voyage of "Zoane Caboto":

This Messer Zoane, as a foreigner and a poor man, would not have obtained credence, had it not been that his companions, who are practically all English and from Bristol, testified that he spoke the truth.... They assert that the sea there is swarming with fish, which can be taken not only with the net, but in baskets let down with a stone, so that it sinks in the water. I have heard this Messer Zoane state so much. These same English, his companions, say that they could bring so many fish that this kingdom would have no further need of Iceland, from which place there comes a great quantity of fish called stockfish.

As eager as sharks, Breton, Norman, Basque, Spanish, Portuguese, and English fishermen began ravenously hunting these North American fish. Within a decade of Cabot's voyage, a seasonal fleet of fishing vessels was streaming each year into these rich waters, and soon regular fishing colonies were sprouting. By 1517, there were reports of a hundred and fifty European fishing vessels based in Newfoundland. From the southern shores of Newfoundland they steadily expanded, first hugging the coasts west into the Gulf of Saint Lawrence and then south into the Gulf of Maine, later venturing offshore first to the Grand Bank southeast of Newfoundland, then working their way around the continental shelf to the phenomenal Georges Bank off New England. The Basques even pushed north to hunt fish and whales from the frigid harbors of Labrador. Throughout the sixteenth century the incredible fish tales of "Zoane Caboto" proved true, as a torrent of wealth poured from American waters to Europe. And those American fish kept luring more and more fishermen, explorers, and colonists.

In 1614, seven years after his fateful arrival in Jamestown, Captain John Smith set sail on another historic voyage to survey the land he named, upon arrival, "New England." His explorations ranged south from the Maine coast to a peninsula jutting out into waters so thick with fish that a previous British voyager in 1602 had already named it Cape Cod. Smith was mainly seeking gold and whales, but he found no gold and his crew was unable to kill any whales. What he found instead as a source of potential riches was "an incredible abundance of most sorts of fish." So Smith devoted many pages in his 1616 volume A Description of New England to arguing for fishing as a lucrative way to colonize the lands he had mapped from Cape Cod to Penobscot Bay.


Excerpted from The Most Important Fish in the Sea by H. Bruce Franklin. Copyright © 2007 H. Bruce Franklin. Excerpted by permission of ISLAND PRESS.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Read More

Customer Reviews

Average Review:

Write a Review

and post it to your social network


Most Helpful Customer Reviews

See all customer reviews >