Menhaden going extinct — the key food source at bottom of food web

[ This is a really long introduction so I can reply to a comment that menhaden are “neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing”.   Huh? Both their numbers and range are small compared to their original population. If there were a reduction, or a moratorium on menhaden fishing for 10 years, the population of bluefin tuna, striped bass, redfish, bluefish, and humpback whales, to name just a few of the 79 species that feed on menhaden, would explode and create far more commercial and sports fishing jobs than the only active Atlantic coast menhaden processing plant (Omega Protein) at Reedville, Virginia.

According to Chairman Robert H. Boyles Jr., Chairman of the ASMFC Menhaden Management Board and a fisheries biologist with over 35 years of federal fishery conservation and management experience both nationally and internationally with 20 years of experience in the headquarters of the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS)):

“I am concerned about the dwindling number of Atlantic menhaden and the impact that their disappearance has on the health of coastal ecosystems, fisheries and economies. Once abundant along the entire Eastern Seaboard, t he menhaden population has reached an all-time low of less than 10% of its historic size.  It is not enough to limit fishing mortality by the industrial-scale menhaden industry in order to provide a maximum sustainable yield for that fishery because menhaden are much more important ecologically as prey for higher trophic level species of the Atlantic coast. Menhaden are the primary prey item for a majority of Atlantic coast predatory fishes. But they are also a direct link in converting the primary productivity of coastal marshes into fish biomass of the other species targeted extensively by both commercial and recreational fishermen.  Menhaden are unique in that they are able to digest detritus (produced by the breakdown of marsh grass into small pieces which develop a coating of bacteria that the menhaden strips off in its digestive tract and expels, later to develop another bacterial coating,
etc. etc.).  Thus, menhaden are able to convert estuarine primary productivity (by marsh grasses) into fish flesh – first theirs and later, when preyed upon, by vast numbers of marine predators such as striped bass and bluefin tuna.  Because menhaden are able to convert marsh productivity into fish flesh and they are the primary link in the Atlantic coastal fish food web, enlightened menhaden management is thus extremely important.  Without menhaden, we would not have the abundance of marine fish t hat exist off the Atlantic coast. This is the conclusion of scientists at NMFS’ Southeast Fisheries Science Center Laboratory at Beaufort, NC, during my tenure with the agency. I understand that …the Board is under pressure to [increase] the quota for 2015. I urge you to explicitly provide for the needs of menhaden predators before increasing menhaden catch limits for 2015 or beyond.

It’s important to note that there has been no documented increase in menhaden abundance here in the Northeast. De spite industry claims that large schools of previously uncounted adult fish are present in northern water s, these sightings appear to end in Providence Rhode Island–well short of menhadens historic range through Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine. More troubling for us on outer Cape Cod is the lack of juveniles (peanut bunker) that used to frequent our Ocean beaches drawing Striped Bass and Bluefish into the surf zone to the delight of the many surfcasters who live and visit here. Since 2008 when the last such instance of peanut bunker were present in our waters, there have been zero such schools here, making the beaches mos tly devoid of Striped Bass and B luefish through much of our brief fishing season.This is just one example of the negative consequences a diminished supply of menhaden has to our way of life, our local economy, and the health and vitality  of our marine ecosystem. It’s time to hold the line with menhaden conservation, and resist those interests who would like to see a relaxing of the catch limits we worked so hard to a ch ieve. Let’s allow menhaden the chance to recover to former levels of abundance thr oughout their historic range-including Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine.”

Andrew David Thaler in the article “Six reasons why Menhaden are the greatest fish we ever fished“: 

“You could be forgiven if you thought that the American industrial revolution was powered by whale oil. The glossy lubricant was used primarily for lighting in pre-industrial America. By the time Herman Melville published Moby Dick, the golden age of whaling was already in decline. The Civil War was its death blow. Out of that conflict came the industrial menhaden industry. By 1880, half a billion menhaden were being rendered into oil and fertilizer. There were almost three times as many menhaden ships as whaling ship. A menhaden boat could produce more oil in a week than a whaling ship could during it’s entire, multi-year voyage, and it could do so close to shore and out of harms way.

The environmental movement and fisheries ecology rose from the first menhaden collapse. George Marshs’s Man and Nature, later retitled The Earth as Modified by Human Action, published in 1864, was the first major work to link the principles of naturalism with the rigor of ecology. Its publication mark the beginning of the modern environmental movement. In Extirpation of Aquatic Animals, he points to the decimation of menhaden as one of the key examples of our impact on the oceans. In 1879, George Brown Goode released his monumental work, A History of the Menhaden, the first, and still one of the the most comprehensive, studies of an American fishery. In 1880, we were running out of menhaden. The schools that Goode had studied, primarily north of Cape Cod, were gone. Even today, the menhaden’s range is a fraction of what it once was. Yet we continue to fish for them, for one very compelling reason.

Menhaden are really, really good at making more Menhaden.  An adult female menhaden can produce more than 300,000 eggs in a year. They become sexually mature after 2 years. If you look up fecund in a dictionary, you’ll see a picture of a menhaden. That fact alone is the reason that, even after a major fisheries collapse in 1880, they are still a viable fishery, though we have fallen from half a billion tons at its peaks to a measly 300,000 tons, today. This profound fecundity also means that, with reduced pressure, they still have a chance to recover.”

You have to wonder if the NOAA and Atlantic States Marine (ASMFC) are captured government agencies, since the Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation, Inc writes that:

Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation (CBEF) disagrees with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission’s (ASMFC) 2015 menhaden stock assessment’s conclusion that menhaden have not been overfished in five decades. The informed public is confused and skeptical since the assessment does not address ecological overfishing unsustainable harvest levels that disrupt the natural balance between predators and prey). Although the 2015 assessment indicated menhaden reproductive potential may be greater than previously thought, total abundance of this indispensable prey species is low and continuing to decline.

The Pew Charitable Trusts has 10 reasons why the menhaden catch limit should not be increased in 2017, here are a few of them:

Menhaden remain far below their historic numbers in the Northern and Southern regions of the East Coast. However, if conservation efforts continue, they can be abundant again from Maine to Florida.

  • The vast majority of the menhaden fished coast-wide are caught in one relatively small area near the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay, which is also a vital nursery area for many ocean species. An increase in the 2017 quota would intensify fishing in this important and vulnerable estuary, which is already harmed by the loss of important habitats and poor water quality.
  • The latest peer-reviewed scientific assessment identified a growing number of mature menhaden, indicating that the population is poised to increase.   But it also suggests that menhaden are still vulnerable: The overall number in recent years was near historic lows, as was the number of young fish surviving long enough to reproduce and help the population grow.
  • Giving menhaden time under current catch limits to return to their historic population size and range will deliver the highest benefit to Atlantic coast ecosystems, economies, and fishermen.

As to whether menhaden improve water quality or not, I can find only one paper on this done in a laboratory 5 years ago, so this doesn’t seem to be a settled matter at all.

Consider too that predatory fish can’t make omega-3’s themselves, but are high in omega-3 fatty acids because of eating menhaden, making them an important part of a healthy diet.

Since we now use 10 calories of fossil fuels to provide 1 food calorie, when oil declines (tractors, harvesters, distribution of food, etc run on diesel fuel) and natural gas declines (both feedstock and energy source to make fertilizers that can grow up to 5 times as much food per acre than in the past), and population and immigration continue to grow exponentially (to drive down wages to enriches the rich), clearly there will be food shortages some day soon, since we are at peak oil, at or close to peak coal, and nearing peak natural gas as well.  Allowing menhaden to increase by decreasing catch limits, or better yet, a moratorium, is an easy way to lower suffering in the future by increasing fisheries, and menhaden are also a great fertilizer.

Alice Friedemann  author of “When Trucks Stop Running: Energy and the Future of Transportation”, 2015, Springer and “Crunch! Whole Grain Artisan Chips and Crackers”. Podcasts:  KunstlerCast 253, KunstlerCast278, Peak Prosperity , XX2 report ]

Alice Friedemann. March 23, 2009. Meet menhaden – before this ecologically critical fish vanishes. Ethicurean.


Ever heard of menhaden? Probably not, although perhaps you’re familiar with the fish’s other names: bunker, pogies, mossbacks, bugmouths, alewifes, and fat-backs. You may be surprised to learn they’re the most important fish in the Atlantic and Gulf waters.

Menhaden are the vacuum cleaners of our coasts, filtering up to four gallons of water a minute to extract phytoplankton (algae and other tiny plants). They grow no more than a foot long at most, yet the weight of an entire school of menhaden can equal that of a blue whale.

On land, plants are at the bottom of the food chain, eaten by many herbivores—mice, rabbits, cattle, insects, and so on. In the ocean, plants are also at the bottom of the food chain. The difference is, there’s only one main herbivore: menhaden. The other filter feeders—like baleen whales, herring, and shad—eat zooplankton (tiny animals).

This gives menhaden an extraordinary weight in the oceanic ecosystem: they are the main food source of the entire food web above, and the main species keeping the ecosystem healthy, by clearing the water of excess algae.

Unfortunately, as H. Bruce Franklin documents in “The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America,” they’re almost all gone. And one company, Omega Protein, is systematically eliminating the few that remain, for fishmeal and poultry feed.

Men had it

When the Pilgrims first arrived in the New World, they were astounded by the abundant sea life. The rivers and coasts were teaming with 6-foot-long salmon, foot-wide oysters, and schools of 140-pound striped bass. There were so many whales criss-crossing bays, estuaries, and the coast that they were a peril to ships.

The food chain for all of this cornucopia of life depended on billions of menhaden, once so plentiful that they formed a veritable river of flesh along the Atlantic coast, writes Franklin.

I’d never heard of menhaden until my husband, who grew up in Florida, mentioned them. Just half a century ago, when he and his friends were swimming and the menhaden came through, “they looked like the shadow of a large, approaching cloud—the water boiled with fish, and everyone got out as fast as they could because there were sharks slashing through them, biting at anything that moved.”

Franklin describes menhaden schools as acting like a single organism: “Flashes of silver with flips of forked tails and splashes, whirling swiftly…in moves more dazzling than those of a modern dancer, as they seek escape from hordes of bluefish below and gulls above…a breathtaking experience.”

Menhaden were eaten by dozens of kinds of fish, as well as sea mammals and birds. (Humans don’t choose to eat them because they smell awful and are too oily. But we do eat them indirectly when we dine on menhaden predators, such as tuna, cod, shark, and swordfish.)

The Native American word for menhaden translates to “fertilizer”: they buried these fish below the corn they planted. The Pilgrims copied them, and grew triple the corn they could have otherwise. Later generations forgot about using menhaden as fertilizer, until an article about the practice in 1792 changed all that. It wasn’t long before millions of tons of menhaden were caught and dragged as far as seven miles inland to be dumped on fields, saving farmers the enormous cost of importing guano from Peru. By 1880 menhaden had also replaced whales as a source of oil, and the bits that weren’t used for oil were made into fertilizer or animal feed and shipped all over the country.

Meanwhile, wealthy landowners had permanent nets strung across rivers abutting their property, scooping up all passing fish. Unsurprisingly, fish populations declined dramatically, and by 1870, 90% were gone. Commercial fishermen and citizens desperately tried to stop permanent nets and the menhaden fleets, but wealthy interests were able to prevent any restrictions on fishing. By 1800 salmon had been fished out of New York and Connecticut, by 1840 there were no salmon south of Maine, and when the menhaden industry was finally banned in Maine in 1879, it was too late, the menhaden were gone, and the northern fishery collapsed.

Measuring from the 1860s to today, the combined weight of all the menhaden harvested is more than that of all other commercial fish—more than all the salmon, cod, tuna, halibut, herring, swordfish, flounder, snapper, anchovies, mackerel, and so on that humanity has dragged from the water in the last century and a half.

State by state, the commercial fishing industry wiped out menhaden and gone bankrupt. But it has never died out completely, because the U.S. government has spent taxpayer money to keep the industry going in states where menhaden still existed. There was no reason to do this, Franklin writes: menhaden oil, animal feed, and fertilizer have all been replaced with much cheaper petroleum and soybean substitutes. The role that menhaden play in the ocean’s food chain, however, is irreplaceable.

The ocean’s hoovers, damned

Image of menhaden catch from NOAA

Image of menhaden catch from NOAA

One company, Omega Protein, now catches the majority of menhaden, hunting down the last few remaining schools in two of the most productive fisheries, the Gulf of Mexico and Chesapeake Bay, both of which have suffered tremendous ecological damage and fishery destruction the past few decades. More than 30 Omega spotter planes direct a fleet of 61 ships to where the menhaden swim close to the surface. Omega Protein turns the aquatic herbivores into poultry feed and fishmeal for farmed salmon, two products for which there are cheaper and less devastating alternative sources.

Menhaden are not the only forage fish species being overharvested. According to the Marine Fish Conservation Network, “Globally, about 30% of all marine fish landed each year are forage fish (anchovies, sardines, hake, herring, Pollock, squid, krill) that are processed directly into fishmeal and oil and used in livestock and aquaculture feeds.” The U.N Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) estimates that insatiable demand from the global aquaculture industry will outstrip the available supplies of sources of fishmeal and fish oil within the next decade.

Not only are menhaden the main food item for many fish, but they play an even more critical role in the health of any aquatic ecosystem. They filter phytoplankton out, allowing sunlight to reach the depths where aquatic plants can prosper, which increases oxygen levels, allowing shellfish and fish to thrive. When algae aren’t consumed, they erupt into toxic algal blooms, die and sink to the bottom, smothering plants and depleting oxygen. This leads to massive die-offs of all sea life within these areas and is a major contributing factor, along with agricultural run-off from the Mississippi River, to the 8,000-square-mile dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico.

If it were somehow possible to shut down the menhaden industry entirely, Franklin says, and the pitifully few populations protected and nursed back to health, then the ocean and estuaries could be cleansed, shellfish and fish populations recover, and a new sport and commercial fishing industry emerge as the dozens of fish that feast on menhaden return. Oysters, crabs, striped bass, and many other tasty species of seafood might thrive again if the oceans were cleared of toxic algal blooms. Far more jobs would be created if menhaden schools were to recover than would be lost if Omega Protein were forced to get out of the menhaden business.

No conservation organizations are trying to get rid of Omega Protein entirely. But legislatively, it’s been difficult even to get the fishing limits cut back or lower the bycatch of other fish. Congressmen and commissions in Mississippi, Texas, and Virginia have bowed to pressure from Omega Protein and the aquaculture industry in their states. The Marine Fish Conservation Network reports that “on Jan. 20, the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources voted not to change any regulations or impose a catch limit on the menhaden industry. Omega’s stock rose the next day.”

The MFCN, which represents over 200 conservation and fishing groups, has a comprehensive list of related legislation and a wealth of resources about the menhaden and other fish issues. Other sites where you can learn more or take action:

This entry was posted in Biodiversity Loss, Extinction, Fisheries, Starvation and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

7 Responses to Menhaden going extinct — the key food source at bottom of food web

  1. Bore Head says:

    Based on the revised reference points recommended by the benhcmark stock assessment and approved by the Peer Review Panel, Atlantic menhaden are neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing. The revised reference points are based on historical performance of the population during the time frame 1960-2012, a period during which the Technical Committee considers the population to have been sustainably fished. Fishing mortality rates have remained below the revised overfishing threshold (1.26) since the 1960s, and have hovered around the revised overfishing target (0.38) through the 1990s. In 2003, fishing mortality dropped below the revised target and was estimated to be 0.22 in 2013 (the latest year in the assessment). In other words, fishing mortality has been decreasing throughout the history of the fishery, and is now 42% below the target.

    • energyskeptic says:

      Scientists and government agencies kept insisting that cod were being sustainably fished, and look what happened!

      Obviously menhaden numbers are a fraction of what they used to be. “sustainably fished” is absurd. When I was a kid, menhaden schools migrated along the coast by the billions, and lifeguards got everyone out of the water because the game fish and sharks were mixed in with them. You never, ever see these vast schools of fish anymore.

      Some environmental groups say the latest data still doesn’t consider enough factors, such as the impact of menhaden fishing on species that rely on the feeder fish. They cite reduced populations and health of rockfish or striped bass as evidence of the menhaden fishing industry’s long-term environmental impacts.

      The Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation, for example, disagreed with the conclusions of the ASMFC’s most recent stock assessment and its finding that the menhaden had not been overfished for decades. The foundation agrees with other environmental groups that assessing only the menhaden’s population oversimplifies the key role of the species as a staple food for other fish in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.

      here’s something from national geographic 2011:
      Menhaden were once abundant along the Atlantic seaboard, forming schools up to 40 miles long. These giant “pods” made up a central link in ocean ecosystems along the East Coast, providing a primary nutrition source for larger fish, seabirds, and marine mammals.

      Americans rely on many of the predators that eat menhaden. We consume tuna, cod, and striped bass. Entire communities depend on income derived from recreational fishing, as well as wildlife and bird watching. There are plenty of ecological and financial reasons why this small animal is often called “the most important fish in the sea.” Unchecked and Unmanaged The population of menhaden has plummeted 88 percent over the last 25 years

      By weight, more menhaden are caught than any other fish on the East Coast, and about three-quarters of this catch comes from the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding ocean waters. A single factory in Reedville, Va., takes in and grinds up this haul, reducing it to fish meal and oil destined for dietary supplements, fertilizer, farm animal feed, and pet food.

      Because menhaden are mainly caught in state waters (less than three miles from the beach), they are managed by the ASMFC and are not governed by the requirements of the federal Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which I’ve described in earlier posts. There is no catch limit for Atlantic menhaden, only an unenforceable cap, with no accountability measures in place.

      The ASMFC has defined safe fishing targets for menhaden, but surprisingly, no action plan is in place that requires fishing boats to meet them. Consequently, menhaden populations have plunged to less than 10 percent of historic levels, but there is still some confusion over whether the species is actually overfished. That’s because the ASMFC’s definitions of “overfishing” and “overfished” are different from those of the regional councils that manage fisheries in federal waters.

      Here’s the bottom line: Although the ASMFC has set safe fishing targets for menhaden, it has never required fishing to stop when those levels were reached. This benchmark has been exceeded every year since 1960; the fish hasn’t caught a break since Eisenhower was president.

      • Doubting Thomas says:

        Dear Energy Skeptic – Unfortunately for your readership, you continue to perpetuate the urban myth set forth by Mr. Franklin that, by virtue of their filtering capacity, menhaden improved water quality. Check out the following publications:

        FRIEDLAND, K.D.; LYNCH, P.D., and GOBLER, C.J., 2011. Journal of Coastal Research 27(6):1148-1158 · November 2011. Time Series Mesoscale Response of Atlantic Menhaden Brevoortia tyrannus to Variation in Plankton Abundances.

        Patrick D. Lynch, Mark J. Brush, Elizabeth D. Condon, Robert J. Latour, Marine Ecology Progress Series 401:195-209 (2010). Net removal of nitrogen through ingestion of phytoplankton by Atlantic menhaden Brevoortia tyrannus in Chesapeake Bay.

        The major conclusion from the first article: “Collectively, these results suggest that adult menhaden play a minimal role in providing ecosystem filtration and may actually promote primary production through the removal of zooplankton grazers and the excretion of nutrients.”

        The major conclusion from the second article: “Population-level estimates of net nitrogen removal imply that menhaden play a minimal role regarding water quality in Chesapeake Bay.”

        Moreover, internationally peer-reviewed stock assessments for the Atlantic and gulf menhaden recently found both populations not overfished, nor is overfishing occurring.

        You got a bit lazy; please do the proper homework next time.

        • energyskeptic says:

          I wrote this article before the above came out, and they are the only 2 articles I could find in, both done 5+ years ago, so I wonder if this is indeed settled science and proven for all time. Even if this is the case, my main concern is getting menhaden numbers back up to historic levels to support the over 79 species that eat menhaden to create a larger commercial and sports fishery and provide food and fertilizer for future generations during fossil fuel decline.

    • como says:

      Read: You work for Omega Protein.

  2. Maura benton says:

    The best forestry happens when there are no foresters around.Ill bet the fish could really use a long moratium from ALL human activity for a long,long time!!!!!

  3. Maura benton says:

    The more specific certain arguments get the more I suspect we are being subjected to that old maxim “figures dont lie,but figurers do”,especially when it comes to ocean fish.It has been established beyond any doubt that scientists(not the scientific method,mind you)are human,and therefore fallible,and purchasable.

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