Two years ago, a friend encouraged me to read an obscure book titled ‘The Most Important Fish in the Sea’ (H. Bruce Franklin, published in 2007) about a fish I had never heard of named menhaden and it profoundly changed my awareness about the significant stress facing the ocean ecosystem.
Growing up in Pennsylvania, my family spent our Summers months on Cape Cod and I remember references to a fish called ‘bunkers’ and then later in life, while working out of Venice, Louisiana in the offshore Gulf of Mexico I passed a very pungent ‘pogy’ plant on my daily commute.
‘Bunkers’, ‘pogy’ and a variety of names have evolved for the menhaden species. The earliest reference to menhaden comes from the Abenaki Indians of coastal Maine who used ‘pauhagen’ as fertilizer, later sharing with the Puritan Pilgrims who adopted the name ‘poghaden’ (shortened with time to ‘pogy’).
Interestingly, menhaden are only found off the Atlantic coast of North America, the Gulf of Mexico and limited volumes in the Pacific Ocean. Wherever located, the ecosystem reliance on this important fish is absolutely amazing.
Menhaden are filtering machines, naturally cleansing the water of algae, phytoplankton & zooplankton. Additionally, menhaden are the nutritious go-to meal for striped bass, mackerel, bluefish, porpoises, whales and a variety of water birds such as ospreys, pelicans & eagles.
When menhaden are absent, algae bloom ‘dead zones’ occur (referred to on Cape Cod as a ‘red tide’) and predator fin-fish stocks decline as the entire marine food chain experiences enormous stress.
Since menhaden is an extremely oily fish, it has never been a source of food for humans, however, menhaden has commercial value in the human world showing up a wide variety of things such as paints, cosmetics, fish oil supplements, and animal feeds.
This commercial value has attracted the escalating attention of fishing interests starting with the age of sloop vessel fishing in the late 1600’s.
Over geologic time, the menhaden species has instinctively learned to school together for protection against predators, with impressive references in the 1700’s of menhaden sightings several miles wide at the surface of the ocean.
Regrettably though, this schooling behavior of menhaden set the stage for their modern day demise. As commercial fisheries rose to prominence, these massive schools of menhaden became easy targets as a large sloop net could haul in an entire generation of menhaden in one fell swoop!
With the march of technology improvements, the menhaden population has not stood a chance against the capabilities of modern day commercial fishing fleets.
So in about 300 years, we have gone from seeing menhaden for as far as the eye can see at the oceans’ surface to rare sightings, a tragic outcome for the ocean ecosystem.
The health of the ocean ecosystem & marine food chain is directly tied to this hero of a fish named menhaden and I look forward to playing my part to raise awareness for the protection of this critical little fish.
In my lifetime, it is my hope to see menhaden stocks recover and that I never see another ‘red tide’ off the coast of Cape Cod.
My appreciation to the IFCNR foundation and their continuing efforts to proactively guide responsible marine policy initiatives for the protection of the global oceans.