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Neptune's Cornucopia: the danger that threatens with the destruction of the Menhaden

Listen to the interview with H Bruce Franklin:

Some mistakes you don't get to "do-over." Wiping out a unique fish, the Menhaden, the keystone species of America's Atlantic and Gulf fisheries, amounts to ecocide. And a peculiarly foolish mistake, too - nothing great accrues to any of the grubby perpetrators, or their equally grubby political enablers. Devastation only provides literally chicken-feed to a few. Dr. H. Bruce Franklin, an eminent literary expert and historian of American culture, tells this fish story in an unforgettable way. Please also buy his book, The Most Important Fish in the Sea. Total runtime an hour and eleven minutes. Spread the word!
Neptune's Cornucopia: the danger that threatens with the destruction of the Menhaden
Some mistakes you don't get to "do-over." Wiping out a unique fish, the Menhaden, the keystone species of America's Atlantic and Gulf fisheries, amounts to ecocide. And a peculiarly foolish mistake, too - nothing great accrues to any of the grubby perpetrators, or their equally grubby political enablers. Devastation only provides literally chicken-feed to a few. Dr. H. Bruce Franklin, an eminent literary expert and historian of American culture, tells this fish story in an unforgettable way. Please also buy his book, The Most Important Fish in the Sea. Total runtime an hour and eleven minutes. Spread the word!

 http://www.electricpolitics.com/podcast/2008/03/neptunes_cornucopia.html

'Here's a most extraordinary story I'm betting you've never heard of: the Menhaden fish. It's unique to American waters and it does two things, it cleans the water and it's a food source for the kind of fish we like to eat. Sounds simple, right? Menhaden used to number in the billions, perhaps trillions, and accounted for the unimaginable bounty of the sea and crystal clear waters found by early settlers. But having now been fished to the brink of extinction the loss of Menhaden is directly responsible for huge dead zones in the Gulf of Mexico and the Chesapeake Bay, not to mention huge decreases in available game and commercial fish.

As H. Bruce Franklin puts it in the title of his book, the Menhaden is The Most Important Fish in the Sea. Bruce, a noted literary expert and historian of American culture at Rutgers, tells this story in an unforgettable way.

There's hope, though, and the Menhaden reduction industry, for all the devastation it causes, is a very small one, probably incapable of resisting determined political pressure to shut it down. The question is, will people rally to demand action quickly enough? If the reduction industry were banned within the next few years, the Menhaden surely can recover due to their astonishing fertility. But if the industry isn't banned the fish may well become extinct within a decade.

I hope you'll listen to this one and consider not only how outrageous this spoliation of the commons is, but what we (and you personally) might be able to do about it.'
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You can't go to your seafood store or fishmonger and order them, and it may well be that you have never even heard of them, but menhaden are, according to a new book, _The Most Important Fish in the Sea_ (Island Press). Author H. Bruce Franklin also knew almost nothing about them until one day when he was fishing with friends at the mouth of the tidal Matawan Creek in New Jersey. He saw a spotter plane fly over the ocean to guide a boat to a school of menhaden, and then saw the boat haul in the entire school by a purse seine net. Franklin wasn't there to fish for menhaden himself; no angler does that, because menhaden stink and they are bony and "so oily that just about no human would chose to eat them". After the boat had taken its catch away, the bluefish and weakfish that Franklin might have been angling for were no longer there, because there was no menhaden for them to feed upon. It was not just a temporary void; industrial fishing for menhaden has been going on for a century and a half, efficiently wiping out the fish from waters off the east coast, and now working on the Gulf Coast variant, too. Menhaden does not just feed game fish; in an eye-opening book, Franklin shows that it is a keystone species and that its destruction is doing far more than depriving other fish of their accustomed meals. He also gives a history of the menhaden fishery and the reactions to it, which parallels our emerging ecological awareness, and also our ineffective attempts to restore ecological balance.

Menhaden get to be about a foot long. They look something like herrings and were often confused with them by the first settlers here. The oceans used to be full of them. The Algonquin Indians had known for years, and taught the settlers, that planting some dead menhaden along with corn could greatly increase the yield. In the nineteenth century, pulling "guano from the sea" became a lucrative industry, and with the invention of the purse seine, the unlimited schools of menhaden were doomed. Menhaden reduction is still practiced, mostly by the essentially monopolistic firm Omega Protein. It continues to take menhaden out, not just for fertilizer these days, but also for food pellets for chicken and farm-raised fish (you do eat menhaden, just not directly) and (as the name implies) for trendy fish oils. Menhaden are the preferred diet for predatory fish, birds, and mammals, and that these species have to turn to other prey or die was known to the incipient ecology movement of the nineteenth century. What could not have been known back then and has only become clear in recent decades is that menhaden play a vital role not just by being eaten but also by eating. Menhaden are filter feeders, slurping up huge quantities of cellulose and other junk in the water, but especially masses of phytoplankton, including algae. They eat the nutrient-rich phytoplankton which is incorporated into their bodies and taken out to sea for further dispersal. Remove the menhaden, and the water gets turbid and killer algal blooms form; it is no coincidence that the increase in frequency of devastating blooms has come as menhaden are fished out of the waters.

There is some hope in this bleak story. Menhaden are resilient and they have the capacity to bounce back in subsequent generations. Franklin believes, as do many other fishermen, that when New Jersey banned Omega Protein's fleets from its waters that there was a resurgence of menhaden and of the bluefish and striped bass that eat them. He is concerned that this may mean that Omega Protein will be eager to get the ban reversed since, they will argue, there really isn't any problem. It might be that such a ban in the Chesapeake would allow the menhaden to renew their other great environmental role of keeping the water clear and healthy. Franklin's book is persuasive, and will help with a positive answer to the great question he poses: "Will enough people come to realize that the most vital mission of our most important fish is not creating corporate profits but restoring and sustaining our marine environment?"
 http://www.amazon.com/Most-Important-Fish-Sea-Menhaden/dp/1597261246