fish, menhaden, menhaden fish

Dwindling Population of Crucial Fish Could Require Federal Attention

December 16, 2009 06:20 PM
by Sarah Amandolare
The population of Menhaden, a small fish used for fish oil pills, is rapidly depleting, prompting calls for protective legislation and shedding light on alternative sources of omega-3s.

Fish Full of Omega-3s

Menhaden are well known among fishermen and conservationists. The small fish, typically less than a foot long, is a major source of food for striped bass, bluefin tuna, redfish and bluefish. According to Paul Greenberg in an editorial for The New York Times, all of these fish are unable to synthesize omega-3s; instead, they get the fatty acid from menhaden. Fish oil pills are also largely comprised of fish oil from menhaden, Greenberg reports.

Menhaden are considered among the sea’s most crucial creatures—they act as water filters—but “are entering the final losing phases of a century-and-a-half fight for survival,” Greenberg writes. A company called Omega Protein of Houston catches 90 percent of U.S. menhaden, and maintains processing plants in North Carolina and Virginia. Omega Protein is allowed to fish for menhaden in federal waters, resulting in “a half-billion” menhaden being fished per year.

Greenberg says “13 of the 15 Atlantic states have banned Omega Protein’s boats from their waters” due to the issue. But that’s not enough. Greenberg wants federal legislation banning menhaden fishing in federal waters, coupled with similar Virginia state legislation for the Chesapeake Bay, site of the world’s “largest menhaden nursery.”

Menhaden are a “forage fish species,” according to Alice Friedemann, who discussed the issue last March for The Ethicurean. Other forage fish species are also being overfished, including sardines and anchovies. Estimates from the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization show that within ten years, the “supplies of sources of fishmeal and fish oil” will not meet demand, Friedemann notes.

She goes on to describe how menhaden play a “critical role in the health of any aquatic ecosystem” by filtering out phytoplankton and consuming algae. The absence of menhaden is partially to blame for “the 8,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.”

Previous Federal Fishing Legislation

In April 2006, Dan Bacher wrote an editorial for The Fish Sniffer that said the Bush Administration had “outraged anglers” by directing the Pacific Fishery Management Council to delay the start of the recreational salmon fishing season. The administration’s move, however, came in response to its own mistake: the “Subsidized Water for Corporate Farmers” program, a 2002 policy that “devastated the Klamath fishery.”

Historical Context: Menhaden fishing in the 1600s and 1880s

The New York Times reported on menhaden fishing on Jan. 20, 1888. Even then, menhaden fishermen were accused of depleting “the supply of food fishes.” One Captain, acknowledging the opposition to his work, “added that the notion of the matter was extremely erroneous and due to ignorance.”

The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America” by H. Bruce Franklin is among the most respected books on the subject. In a review for Natural History magazine, Laurence A. Marschall recounts Franklin’s point that “the commercial exploitation of menhaden began with the Mayflower landing in 1620.”

Background: Omega-3 health benefits

Aside from fish and fish oil pills, where can consumers find omega-3s?

U.S. News and World Report addresses the confusion surrounding omega-3s in a discussion with three food and nutrition experts, including a Mayo Clinic professor of Medicine. The trio provides insights ant tips regarding sources and different types of the fatty acid. Flax seed is one non-fish source high in omega-3s, for example.

Mayo Clinic provides a podcast on how to “get the heart-health benefits” of omega-3 fatty acids, led by a Mayo Clinic nutritionist.

Related Topics: Overfishing and impacts on other species

Some biologists suggested the influx of dead Humboldt squid that had washed ashore in Oregon in October 2008 was a result of overfishing of squid’s natural predators.

Overfishing of salmon “triggered widespread death from starvation of black and grizzly bears,” a situation that ecotourism guides and conservationists called “an unfolding ecological disaster,” Mark Hume explains for The Globe and Mail.

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