by Gritter Griffin
Most of the content of this Part 1 comes from Dr. Franklin’s book but it is the message of destruction that is so vitally important. We are rapidly killing off an entire level of the food chain and when a gap like that occurs in a system so perfectly balanced, a widespread ecological disaster will certainly follow.
Recreational and commercial fishermen know menhaden (pogies) are the best bait for almost all carnivores, but their numbers have been in serious decline since the mid-1800s.
You may know menhaden by a different name — “pogies” — or you may have never heard of them at all. Pogies are small, bony, oily fish that many people will never encounter at the grocery store. Pogies are also a keystone species in the Gulf of Mexico and the Atlantic seaboard and when they disappear, bad things start to happen: The ocean becomes murky, and algae blooms spread unchecked. Menhaden are filter feeders, the janitors of the Atlantic — they have always been around to clean up the mess.
And now they’re not.
H. Bruce Franklin, author of “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” notes that - “You won’t see menhaden in the fish market or supermarket seafood section but they are present in the flesh of other fish lying there in the ice.”
“Northern New England was the scene of the largest menhaden fishery. During fall migration menhaden formed a school body with the vanguard reaching Cape Cod when the rear guard had not left Maine, 40 miles wide,” Franklin said.
But today the numbers of adult fish are 13 percent of what they once were. In 1889, utilizing rather primitive methods, Rhode Island harvested 112 million pounds of menhaden. Three years ago the total was 10 million.
Menhaden, Franklin said, are being decimated by a single company; Omega Protein, ground down (reduced) into oil and meal to be processed into hog and chicken feed, linoleum, cosmetics, lubricants, insecticide, paints, soap, and a multitude of other uses.
“None of the uses of menhaden are necessary. The only reason this industry exists is because it’s a little cheaper than the alternatives,” commented Franklin.
Omega Protein, originally the Zapata Corporation, was co-founded in 1953, Franklin noted with relish, by George H.W. Bush.
“They’re converting billions of menhaden into industrial commodities,” Franklin said. “From 1860 to the present catching menhaden has been this nation’s largest fishery. Since the end of the Civil War more menhaden have been caught by weight and by number than all other fin fisheries put together.”
One thousand fish can yield 18 gallons of oil.
They’re fished fish purse seines. Spotter planes locate the school and it is soon surrounded and swallowed.
“Each adult fish is only a pound but there are so many in the net it may now weigh as much as a blue whale,” Franklin said.
Native Americans planted menhaden with corn and taught the colonists to plow them into their fields as fertilizer – which they did - by the millions!
“They made larger scale agriculture possible,” Franklin ventured.
Menhaden are filter feeders, they lack teeth, and churn through clouds of plankton in Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Coast, the Gulf Coast, and other estuaries.
“Each adult fish can filter four gallons of water a minute,” noted Franklin. “Turn on any faucet or hose and try to get four gallons a minute out of it - you cannot.”
In the mid 1800′s whaling ports were converted into menhaden ports. More than 100 processing factories were built. Over three hundred vessels were based in Maine alone.
“In 1879 Maine was the first state to ban the menhaden reduction industry from their waters,” Franklin noted. ”“But it was too late. The menhaden were gone.”
Only intermittently have they returned to waters north of Cape Cod, virtually disappearing from 1993-2004. Over time 11 other states followed the ban and the industry migrated down the coast landing in Virginia. People were recognizing their importance as food for bigger edible fish.
“By forcing people to rethink the predator-prey relationship menhaden demanded a revolution in human thought,” Franklin said.
But, after WWII the industry drafted surplus warships into the fight.
“The weapons of war could now be hurled at huge offshore schools that had withstood three generations of efforts,” declared Franklin.
The schools shrank in size as fish were harvested far offshore in their spawning grounds.
“As the menhaden population crashed, smaller companies went bankrupt,” Franklin noted, and soon, it was Omega Protein that was left with their fleet of 61 ships and 31 planes.
As a note of comparison, “By the 1930s the bay’s oyster population was one percent of what it was in the 1890s and today menhaden are headed for the same fate,” Franklin said.
The bay’s catch for menhaden has been capped at 109,000 metric tons but the 2007 haul was just half that.
“That’s a true crash and portends a catastrophe for the whole coast,” Franklin said.
The New Jersey population has since rebounded but the fleet followed them north. Franklin would like to prevent that.
“There is a bill in Congress to shut the menhaden fishery in federal waters,” reported Franklin. “Given a chance this wonderfully fecund fish could come back.”
“The time has come, actually it came in 1882, for our government to get into the act,” he concluded.
More to come, specifically about the Gulf Coast pogey fishery, in Part 2.