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Earth Matters

Earth Matters: The Most Important Fish in the World

by Susan Hellauer

Earth Matters focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living. This weekly series is brought to you by Maria Luisa Boutique and Strawtown Studio and Summer Play Camp at Blue Rock School and Dying To Bloom, a natural burial boutique for humans and pets. Applications are now available for the ML by Maria Luisa Scholarships for the 2018-2019 year. The application deadline is March 16, 2019.
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It’s a shiny little fish, easy to catch, but not gastronomically appealing enough for us fussy humans to cook and eat. Scientists know it as Brevoortia tyrannus. New York fisherman call it bunker. To the fishing industry, it’s Atlantic menhaden.

In 1621, Tisquantum (“Squanto”) showed the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims how to supercharge their corn crops by burying menhaden with seedlings. Since the early 19th century, this silvery foot-long fish has been harvested commercially for use as fertilizer, animal feed, industrial oil, as well as bait for lobsters and larger catch.

In the 20th century, the abundant Atlantic menhaden fishery grew quickly as more uses were identified. Pulverized menhaden are now used as pig feed, and for aquaculture (“fish farming”) around the world. The recent omega-3 fish oil vitamin craze has upped the earnings potential substantially.

But the expanding industrial-scale fishing of menhaden, dominated by Virginia-based fishing fleets of Omega Protein Corporation, is seen by some as a potential environmental threat. And climate change is nudging their boats near New York waters. Menhaden are food-web intermediaries between tiny plankton and larger species, including the ones we prefer to catch and dine on. Aggressive “fish-mining,” with purse seine nets six city blocks long assisted by spotter planes, has watchdog groups like The Nature Conservancy, Pew Charitable Trust, Audubon, Earthjustice, Menhaden Defenders, Gotham Whale, Riverkeeper, and others campaigning to protect our local ecosystem by protecting menhaden.

menhaden

Brevoortia tyrannus, or Menhaden. Photo: Brian Gatwick via Wikimedia Commons

For a closer look at the big problem with this little fish, and to learn what we can all do to help, Earth Matters spoke to George Jackman, Riverkeeper’s Habitat Restoration Manager.

EM: Riverkeeper is praising passage of new New York State legislation to protect the local menhaden population by prohibiting industrial-scale fishing in New York State waters. How exactly will this legislation help menhaden in our region? 

George Jackman: This legislation won’t directly affect fishing operations outside the three-mile limit of New York State waters, but it’s essentially a way of putting “Posted” signs on our waters. It’s also a way to help rally New York State residents, and a way of saying, “You’re not going to do this in our New York waters.” Maybe it doesn’t shut these fishing operations down but it says that we—the people—own these fish, collectively.” Maybe we can galvanize enough support to have more say out in the federal waters too.

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Just outside of New York Harbor, menhaden fishing boats have been known to come close [to shore] when whales have been feeding in sight of the beach. And then they drop their nets. How ethical are they if they’re dropping their nets right in front of whale watchers? And what’s under these boats? They’re fishing blindly. Are there bluefish? Are there striped bass? Are there dolphins caught up in this fishery? Who knows, since there are no observers on board these ships.

Your Riverkeeper blog shows that Omega Protein Corporation “controls” the menhaden fishery? Who are they, and how is that possible?

Omega Protein Corporation was, for a while, part of Zapata Corporation, founded by former president George H.W. Bush, among others. The company has just recently been sold to Cooke Inc., of New Brunswick, Canada. So, a foreign conglomerate now owns the largest fishery on the East Coast of the United States. And they are treating this fish as nothing but a commodity instead of a source of life, and a mainstay of our ecosystem.

Omega Protein has been given a permit by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to take menhaden off the New York State coast. The fishery has traditionally been based out of the Chesapeake Bay. But climate change is now causing large-scale shifts in fish populations. As the menhaden move 275 miles north to our waters, this is going to happen more frequently, and more will be caught in our coastal waters.

menhaden fishing

Purse seine boats surround a school of menhaden. Photo: NOAA, via Wikimedia Commons

We hear about certain fish species being overfished, and catch restrictions are put on until they recover. Has this happened with the menhaden fishery?

Yes. There was a 20% reduction imposed on the menhaden fishery back in 2012. Because the pressure was eased off them, they started to rebound, and in 2017 the ASMFC voted to increase the harvest of menhaden. Omega Protein immediately said that they wanted to fish for more. But we say, “Give the fish a break!”

Do you connect Omega Protein’s request to increase their catch limits with the marketing of omega-3 fish oil supplements?

Yes! And be aware that papers were published in 2018 showing that there’s no significant benefit from these supplements.

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Your blog also objects to Omega Protein’s quest for a certification of sustainability from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC).  If they are following all the rules and not found to be overfishing menhaden, why shouldn’t they get this designation?

Omega Protein says that all of their products are sustainably harvested. The MSC certification  says that the species isn’t being harmed. But Riverkeeper’s contention is that you can’t know if a species is being sustainably harvested if you haven’t accounted for its role in the ecosystem. Granting this label would be like awarding a diploma to a student who’s not even enrolled in college.

Before their comment period closed in January, I wrote a letter on Riverkeeper’s behalf to the organization that is evaluating Omega Protein’s application to the MSC. The letter details our objections to this “single-species” approach to determining sustainability. We believe that Omega Protein will probably be certified by the MSC. But there’s a coalition of environmental groups that will probably appeal that decision. There’s big money for the industry at stake.

whale and menhaden

The most important fish in the sea? This whale is feasting on them. Menhaden fish eat algae and plankton, and everything else eats them. Photo: Gotham Whale

Is it just because menhaden seems so plentiful, and is not used as human food, that it’s not being tracked as carefully as other species?

Managing fisheries is a complex business. As we move into the future, we need first of all to recognize that menhaden are important because they convert the sun’s energy into forage for other creatures, and that their actions are magnified throughout the food web. They eat algae and plankton, and everything else eats them. That’s why they are considered the most important fish in the sea. We are simply not showing the reverence for this fish and the role it plays. We treat them just as a human commodity to be bought, sold, and traded. And the sad part is that we let the fishery mine our local ecosystem and use the menhaden to support fish farming in other parts of the world.

I’m a New Yorker, and I believe that we, as New Yorkers, should resent a foreign corporation coming here to mine for our fish. We want to bring this message to the public, to let them know what is happening. The average person isn’t aware, and the industry would be just as happy if they didn’t know what’s going on.

osprey and menhaden

An osprey with its fresh-caught dinner of menhaden. Photo: Tony Alter of Newport News, VA, via Wikimedia Commons

So, subtract the menhaden from our local ecosystem. Paint a picture of the result. What would that look like?

You might as well paint the collapse of all our iconic game fish, like striped bass and bluefish. But what’s more threatening is that you would cause a predation shift, with species like striped bass and bluefish turning their attention toward Hudson River herring and shad. Those species are already down by 95 to 99%. They can ill afford any extra mortality at this point. They’re depleted, and on the brink of complete extirpation, if not extinction.

In fact, every single species of migratory fish in the Hudson River is now in decline. I was a New York City cop for 20 years. I know that man’s inhumanity toward man is incredibly sad. But man’s inhumanity toward the environment is appalling. These creatures don’t vote, so nobody cares. 

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What do you want people to know, and to do?

We want people to be aware of this issue. And we want people to urge Governor Cuomo to sign this bill (A.2571/S.2317). It stalled in the legislature last year over politics. We finally got it through, and now, essentially, all states along the coast have told Omega Protein, “You’re not welcome in our waters.” We are saying in unison with these states, “Take your industrial fishing elsewhere.”

George Jackman, an aquatic ecologist, retired as a lieutenant after 20 years with the New York City Police Department. He went on to earn a Ph.D in biology from the SUNY School of Environmental Science and Forestry and the CUNY Graduate Center. In addition to his work as Habitat Restoration Manager with Riverkeeper, Jackman is a biology instructor at Queens College, CUNY.

george jackman menhaden

Aquatic ecologist George Jackman evaluates an alewife in the Bronx River. Photo courtesy Riverkeeper

Learn more:

whale menhaden

Silver-gold menhaden are on the menu for whales that are visiting the New York Harbor area in greater numbers. Photo courtesy Gotham Whale

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Earth Matters, a weekly feature that focuses on conservation, sustainability, recycling and healthy living, is sponsored by Maria Luisa Boutique, Dying to Bloom, Strawtown Studio, and Summer Play Camp at Blue Rock School.


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