The most important fish in the sea remains unprotected

Net Loss

by Sam Decker

Net Loss

Lauren Carelli

Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus)  

You’ll never find a menhaden in a recipe, on a menu at your favorite restaurant, or at any of the Vineyard’s fishmongers. But the fish you do catch, cook, eat, or order, like striped bass, swordfish, bluefish, haddock, and halibut, have eaten plenty of it. Menhaden happens to be the number-one preferred snack food of most fish we cook for dinner. So when menhaden stocks decline, so do other populations.

Menhaden (aka pogy, mossbunker, and ‘the most important fish in the sea’) once used to thrive in huge schools that formed a virtual stream of flesh swimming from Nova Scotia to Florida. They were so plentiful that early settlers could ladle them out of the sea with frying pans and use them for fertilizer. By the late 1960s, menhaden stocks had plummeted. But it wasn’t until about 15 years ago that fishermen who use them as bait fish began wondering, where did all the menhaden go? Not coincidentally, they also noticed a decline in the size of fish they’re fishing.

According to the 2007 Massachusetts Striped Bass Monitoring Report, adult striped bass have decreased in weight at age, which means that adult bass are getting smaller. Here’s the connection between the anecdotal evidence, the facts, and menhaden: Chilmark bass fishermen Lev Wlodyka explains: “A lot of the stripers we have around here are wicked malnourished. They’ve turned to eating crustaceans and scavenging off the bottom of the ocean. There’s just not enough menhaden to feed other fishes anymore.”

Menhaden are championship filter feeders. By vacuuming up huge quantities of tiny vegetable matter known as phytoplankton, they prevent harmful algae blooms. An adult menhaden can filter up to five gallons of water in a minute. The clearer water means that sunlight can penetrate, which in turn, promotes the growth of oxygen-producing plants.

West Tisbury fisherman Tom Osmers explains it this way: “They’re an essential link in the (sea) food chain because they convert the product of photosynthesis (plants) into something that can be eaten by carnivores.” In other words, when the oily and nutrient-rich menhaden flesh is consumed by other fish, all those nutrients that were obtained through their hearty vegetable diet are transferred to their predators. When the big fish eat the little fish, the big fish get bigger. As Lev puts it, “They basically turn ocean water into pure protein.”

Today, schools of menhaden are spotted by fish-finding airplanes and are scooped up not by frying pans but with industrial efficiency. Large nets called purse seines are cast off from converted naval ships that track the fish. More than a billion menhaden are caught every year in U.S. fisheries. These fish are freightered to a reduction plant where their oil is wrung out to make health supplements, fertilizer, animal feed, lipstick, and industrial lubricants. Only a tiny fraction will wind up as bait, and not a single menhaden will be consumed by a human being.

Currently, every Atlantic state except North Carolina and Virginia has banned commercial menhaden fisheries, leaving Omega Protein, a Houston-based company, to monopolize the industry. The company fishes the Chesapeake Bay, menhaden’s last stronghold in the Atlantic, and the Gulf of Mexico.

Small fish add up to large numbers, and even larger consequences. According to U.S Department of Commerce fishery statistics, 1.5 billion pounds of menhaden were landed in 2007, up 13 percent from the previous year. Their value is estimated at $125.3 million — yet, it’s a pittance considering the ill effects the decreasing numbers of menhaden have on the ocean.

It used to be frying-pan easy to catch the popular baitfish in any of Martha’s Vineyard’s ponds and harbors. No longer. Fishermen get up at 3 am to search for menhaden to use as bait in the bays and inlets of Buzzard Bay, wary yet hopeful that things will improve.

Osmers, who reports seeing peanut bunker (juvenile menhaden) in some Vineyard ponds, says characteristically, “You can’t be a fisherman and not be an optimist.”