The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America

The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America

H. Bruce Franklin

Language: English

Pages: 280

ISBN: 1597265071

Format: PDF / Kindle (mobi) / ePub

In this brilliant portrait of the oceans’ unlikely hero, H. Bruce Franklin shows how menhaden have shaped America’s national—and natural—history, and why reckless overfishing now threatens their place in both. Since Native Americans began using menhaden as fertilizer, this amazing fish has greased the wheels of U.S. agriculture and industry. By the mid-1870s, menhaden had replaced whales as a principal source of industrial lubricant, with hundreds of ships and dozens of factories along the eastern seaboard working feverishly to produce fish oil. Since the Civil War, menhaden have provided the largest catch of any American fishery. Today, one company—Omega Protein—has a monopoly on the menhaden “reduction industry.” Every year it sweeps billions of fish from the sea, grinds them up, and turns them into animal feed, fertilizer, and oil used in everything from linoleum to health-food supplements.
The massive harvest wouldn’t be such a problem if menhaden were only good for making lipstick and soap. But they are crucial to the diet of bigger fish and they filter the waters of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, playing an essential dual role in marine ecology perhaps unmatched anywhere on the planet. As their numbers have plummeted, fish and birds dependent on them have been decimatedand toxic algae have begun to choke our bays and seas. In Franklin’s vibrant prose, the decline of a once ubiquitous fish becomes an adventure story, an exploration of the U.S. political economy, a groundbreaking history of America’s emerging ecological consciousness, and an inspiring vision of a growing alliance between environmentalists and recreational anglers.

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share the seine and then begin to move, whether by oars then or motor now, in opposite directions. They encircle the entire school, paying out the net as they go. The net has floats at the top to keep one edge on the surface and weights on the bottom to keep the other edge deeper than the school. Thus the net forms a wall encir- Whales, Menhaden, and Industrialized Fishing 69 cling the fish. On the bottom edge of the net are rings, through which run lines. When these lines are tightened, they

of their fisheries. The results were seven massive volumes published between 1884 and 1887 under the imprimatur of the U.S. Commission of Fish and Fisheries as The Fisheries and Fishery Industries of the United States by “George Goode Brown and a Staff of Associates.” This encyclopedic work is a landmark in marine science and history that remains a treasure chest for all subsequent research on U.S. fisheries.17 Two volumes are atlases of wonderful 80 The Most Important Fish in the Sea plates,

the United States was having to import the bulk of its mackerel from Canada and Europe.39 Wh at To o k t h e Fi s h Away ? There are those who argue today that global warming is just part of a natural cycle, uninfluenced by human activities. As menhaden became scarcer in the late nineteenth century, there were those who argued that this was just part of a natural cycle, not the result of overfishing. Although this would seem to be a blatantly more dubious argument than the one offered to

the wiggle.” The corporate consolidation continued relentlessly. One by one, all but local companies that fished exclusively for bait were gobbled up by a new force in the Atlantic: the Zapata Corporation. In 1953, George H. W. Bush cofounded Zapata Corporation, a wildcatting oil and gas exploration company headquartered in Houston. After Bush sold his stake in Zapata in 1966, the company began to branch out into commercial fishing in the Gulf of Mexico, “wringing oil out of fish,” as one

the problem is actually worsened. At least the farms use soybeans, alfalfa, and other nitrogen-fixing crops to retain nitrogen in the soil. But the golf courses use nitrogen promiscuously, and excessive amounts are splattered all over suburbia to produce the fashionable but environmentally destructive fetish of the perfect grass lawn. (Overstimulating these grass lawns with nitrogen is one of the main occupations of suburban landscaping companies, which then profit by cutting the grass as often

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