It’s conceivable many of you have never even heard of a small, bony, inedible member of the herring family called Atlantic menhaden. Yet they are one of the most important fish in the sea. Moving through the water in schools numbering sometimes in the millions, these silvery sea-strainers are a “filter feeder” that consumes huge quantities of microscopic algae which otherwise chokes the Chesapeake Bay estuary. Menhaden are also a critical food source for a wide variety of larger fish, seabirds, and marine mammals (high in protein, their fat content is about four times higher than most other forage fish).
With menhaden in decline, the recovered population of striped bass aren’t getting enough to eat. Emaciated stripers are being seen all along the Atlantic coast. Up to 70 percent of striperd bass in the their primary spawning territory of the Chesapeake are suffering from a bacterial infection that will ultimately prove fatal. This, many scientists believe, is stress-related, due to lack of food.
Why are menhaden in shorter supply? They’re being overfished by the Omega Protein Corporation, owned by billionaire Malcolm Glazer and operating out of America’s third largest fishing port in Reedville, Virginia. They’re being ground up into fish meal that goes into poultry and swine feed. And they’re being “refined” into fish oil for the omega-3 vitamin supplement indsutry.
Nothing points up the critical need for ecosystem management more than the menhaden situation. We’ve got to look holistically at our fisheries, at how taking one species impacts another, and at the overall habitat. To its credit, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recently put a cap on the Atlantic menhaden landings, although the majority of testimony at public hearings favored a moratorium. Whether continuing to allow as many as 300,000 fish at a time to be vacuumed into the holds of factory fishing boats can really make a difference, is very much an open question.