The Oiliest Catch
Menhaden are modest little fish so rich in oil that they’re sometimes called the soybean of the sea. But scooping them up to fuel the omega-3 fish oil craze could pull the rug out from under the entire Atlantic coastal food chain.
By Richard Conniff
The small town of Reedville, Virginia, on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay, is a 1950s, Norman Rockwell sort of place. Bunting hangs from a white picket fence ahead of a holiday weekend, and there’s a tire swing in a front yard. The big, handsome houses on Main Street have wraparound porches and a smattering of gingerbread on the gable peaks.
Reedville is also still a working town. Summer days start around 5 a.m. with the thrum and rumble of heavy diesels as the big fishing boats head out, followed at 5:50 by the whine of the spotter planes taking off. If a fishy smell, or even the occasional stink, wafts across Cockrell Creek from the Omega Protein Corporation’s fish-processing plant—Reedville’s major employer—locals just breathe deeper. They recently raised $350,000 to restore a beloved landmark, the 130-foot-tall smokestack of another fishmeal factory, now defunct.
For almost 140 years, Reedville’s prosperity has depended on one species: the Atlantic menhaden, Brevoortia tyrannus. It’s a modest-looking little fish, generally under a foot in length, with a deeply forked tail and such rich reserves of oil that it’s sometimes called “the soybean of the sea.” A school of them leaves a slick in its wake. Dutch Harbor, Alaska, is the nation’s largest fishing port by tonnage and gets celebrated in “The Deadliest Catch” television series. But Reedville, home of the oiliest catch, comes in second—and gets widely vilified for it.
Menhaden used to be unbelievably abundant on the Atlantic seaboard. When Captain John Smith visited the Chesapeake 400 years ago, he found them “lying so thicke with their heads above the water” that his crew tried to skip a step and “catch them with a frying pan.” New York Harbor, according to a 1679 Dutch travel account, also swarmed with “whales, tunnies and porpoises” as well as with osprey, all feeding on “marsbankers.” (Mossbunker, or bunker, is still a common name for the species.) Harvesting this resource became the business of the menhaden “reduction” industry in the mid-nineteenth century, after a fisherman’s wife in Blue Hill, Maine, figured out how to separate the oil from the menhaden’s flesh. As recently as the 1980s, dozens of reduction plants from Florida to Maine were still at it.
But now the menhaden are going bust, according to a highly vocal coalition of scientists, conservationists, and recreational fishermen. Whereas they were once abundant along the entire Atlantic seaboard, the fishery has shrunk to an area from Virginia to New Jersey, and the annual catch has plummeted by almost 80 percent since the 1950s. Omega Protein executives like to point out that the commercial fishery leaves enough menhaden in the water to produce 18.4 trillion menhaden eggs annually. It sounds like a big number, and in theory it’s almost double what’s needed to maintain the species at target levels. But that 18.4 trillion is down from a peak of 117 trillion in 1961. Moreover, something in the process of turning those eggs into grown-up fish has gone badly awry in recent decades. Conservationists say overfishing is the problem, and they liken the collapse of the menhaden to the decimation of the great bison herds and the extinction of the passenger pigeon in the nineteenth century. Three-quarters of the remaining catch now goes to Reedville, which has the East Coast’s last surviving reduction plant.
Hence Reedville’s split reputation. Depending on your point of view, it is a manufacturing center for what has lately become one of the healthiest and most highly prized products on the planet—omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish meal and fish oil. Or it is the Death Star for marine species on the entire Atlantic seaboard.
The modern battle over menhaden began one day in 1997, when a recreational fisherman named Jim Price turned up at the Maryland Department of Natural Resources with a malnourished and diseased striped bass he had caught. A pathologist there speculated that stripers may have gotten “decoupled from their prey,” and Price, who has no scientific training, thought, “What the hell?” But the phrase stuck in his head.
At six o’clock one recent Saturday evening, at a dock on Maryland’s Eastern Shore where sports fishermen bring their catches to be cleaned, Price was scissoring open the bellies of striped bass carcasses. With each dissection, he called out a litany of data, to be noted down by his wife Henrietta: “Thirty inches. Male. Zero body fat. Spleen good. Stomach empty.”
Price is a jeweler and gem dealer by trade, 69 years old, overweight, hunched, with big rimless eyeglasses on a knobby round face. His manner is both plodding and mildly hectoring. Henrietta has learned to fend him off in an endless round of spousal thrust-and-parry. But no one can keep him from talking about either striped bass or menhaden, preferably both, in a relentless monologue punctuated with phrases such as “I’m the only one out there who sees this” or “They don’t understand like I do.” At one point, midway through a dissection, he mentioned that he has cancer of the colon and liver and that his doctor gave him a few months to live, three years ago. Then he cut open the next fish.
A few of the striped bass carcasses that evening had men-haden in their bellies, swallowed whole. One came out ghoulishly half-digested, eyes gone, skin dissolved, muscle just receding from the pearly, translucent tips of its ribs. But most of the 55 fish Price dissected had empty stomachs and zero body fat. And it was his passionate contention, from 10,000 such dissections, summer and winter, that striped bass in the Chesapeake Bay are starving. They are starving, he said, because the reduction industry has fished the menhaden almost down to nothing.
Many of the most familiar Atlantic Coast predators, from bluefish to humpback whales and from pelicans to bald eagles, depend on menhaden. Like herring, sardines, anchovies, and other small, prolific species, menhaden are “forage fish” and vital as prey for other species. Or as a sports fisherman explained to me, “In nature it’s eat or be et, and menhaden are on the ‘be et’ side of the equation.”
What’s happening to them also fits what scientists say is a dangerous pattern of overharvesting forage fish and jeopardizing their predators worldwide. Off the coast of Peru this year, for instance, overfishing of anchovies, together with shifting weather patterns, has caused massive die-offs of seabirds and dolphins. In April, the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, a panel of marine and fisheries scientists, called for cutting the catch of forage fish globally by half. It also calculated that forage fish would be worth twice as much to fishermen if they just left them in the water to be eaten by pricier species such as striped bass, cod, or tuna.
The idea that overharvesting little fish starves out the bigger ones is an old complaint. Fishermen in the 1870s actually rioted and burned down a menhaden reduction plant on the coast of Maine because they blamed it for the loss of cod and other valuable species. The same concern for species farther up the food chain has in recent years caused every East Coast state except Virginia to ban the reduction industry within its waters.
The complaining has gotten louder in recent years, partly because of the importance of Chesapeake Bay as a nursing ground for the entire East Coast and partly because some people have begun to question the logic of investing large sums to restore other commercial fish species if there aren’t enough menhaden out there for them to eat. The target for these complaints has also become more obvious: concentration of the industry means that the fate of the Atlantic menhaden may now be determined by a single state and a single corporation, Omega Protein.
People in Reedville, where Omega Protein has 275 employees and a dwindling fleet of just nine boats, tend to return the complaints, times two. “The campaign by conservationists is not about cutting back. It’s not about getting more fish. It’s about getting rid of Omega Protein,” said Jimmy Kellum, who owns two menhaden boats and sells about half his catch to the reduction plant. He fumed a bit as he slapped paint on parts for a new boat he was building. Then he added, “What right does Florida or Maine have to say what we can do with our resource? I know you’re going to say he’s a migratory fish. But he’s mine when he’s in my yard.” If menhaden have been largely absent from New England waters since the early 1990s, it’s not Reedville’s fault, he said. “That’s God’s will, whether he contracts the fishery, or expands the fishery into Maine.”
At dawn one recent morning, just off Tangier Island in mid-Chesapeake, the start of the day’s fishing felt like a military maneuver, with a fleet of big boats—up to 170 feet in length—milling about and spotter planes circling in a Cessna dogfight overhead. “Can’t get my eye on any color right now,” a pilot drawled over the radio on the Indian Creek, one of Kellum’s boats, a former Navy tug now converted to purse-seine fishing. Menhaden travel in such densely packed schools that they appear as inky splotches on the surface. Spotter pilots become adept at reading the color and the “whips”—or surface splashing—to estimate the number of fish to the nearest 10,000.
Menhaden breed offshore, and the juveniles then make their way into estuaries, with the Chesapeake serving as the most important nursing ground on the Atlantic seaboard by far. Some menhaden overwinter there. Others begin to arrive in May as vast schools of menhaden migrate northward. “I see two or three here this morning,” said the pilot, meaning schools of fish. “They ain’t no whackers, but they’re worth a set.”
A big, open tub of a boat with six crewmen aboard motored away from the Indian Creek. Under direction from the airplane, it dropped a 1,200-pound sea anchor with one end of its purse seine attached and began paying out the rest—900 feet of buoyed rope from which the net drifted down like a curtain. “Steady, steady, steady,” said the pilot, as the boat slowly circled. “Come right around on ‘em. Lookin’ good. Got every bit of it. Now, just like that, go into the sea anchor. Color there is good.”
With the net now surrounding the school of menhaden, the crew began drawing in a rope that runs through metal rings along the bottom edge, cinching it closed like a coin purse. The clanking of metal parts mixed with sounds of water sheeting down, men shouting, and the spattering of the fish across the surface as the circle steadily contracted around them.
Men in their oilskins reached over to haul in the net, their faces straining, hair flecked with fish scales. The Indian Creek, which had now pulled alongside, lowered a big vacuum tube down into the seething pocket of fish, and the menhaden came flying up into the fish hold, where the streams of chiller water turned murky red with blood and oil.
The Indian Creek would sell that day’s catch to the bait trade, mainly for crabbers in the Chesapeake and lobstermen as far north as Maine. But most of the other boats that day were bound for Omega Protein, where 550 million menhaden a year get reduced to fish meal and oil—and ultimately transformed into human food.
The name “menhaden” comes from a Native American word for fertilizer, and it’s generally thought to be the species Squanto advised the Pilgrims to plant with their corn. On the Connecticut coastline, where I live, farmers used to apply them to their crops at a rate of 10,000 per acre—enough to make even a Reedville resident gag. Menhaden meal has been an ingredient in chicken, pig, and dairy feed since at least the nineteenth century. It’s now also a standard part of the diet on many fish farms, where it typically takes four pounds of forage fish to produce a pound of the salmon and other species we like to eat.
Menhaden rarely turn up on our dinner plates baked, fried, or otherwise; the combination of oil and bones is just too daunting. But we eat menhaden more often than we generally realize. It is a key ingredient, for instance, in the Smart Balance Omega-3 spread I buttered onto my toast this morning, and it’s one reason the eggs I just ate, formerly deemed a cholesterol nightmare, are now prominently labeled as a heart-healthy omega-3 product. Highly refined menhaden oil also turns up in salad dressings (such as Cindy’s Kitchen All Natural brand), cookies (Trader Joe’s Five Seed Almond Bars), and other products that can seem just a little healthier thanks to the omega-3 halo effect.
Almost everyone I spoke with, on both sides of the menhaden fight, also seemed to be taking fish oil in capsule form, at times with almost religious devotion. Research since the 1990s has demonstrated persuasively that omega-3 fatty acids promote normal brain and eye development and can protect against heart disease—hence their reputation as a “miracle food.”
Menhaden is a latecomer to this booming market. Most fish-oil capsules instead contain oil from sardines and anchovies caught on the Pacific Coast of South America. Neither these species nor menhaden actually produce the omega-3 oil themselves. They get it from the algae they eat. And yes, that means it’s possible to bypass the fisheries issue entirely and get your ritual omega-3 dose from algae, too. At a laboratory in a nondescript office park in Columbia, Maryland, a few hours north of Omega Protein, for instance, researchers for Dutch conglomerate DSM take microalgae gathered from beaches or scraped from boat hulls and use them to brew omega-3 oils the way other companies brew beer or antibiotics. But the resulting oil retails for two or three times the price of fish oil.
Hence Omega Protein sees a market niche and better profit margins by moving menhaden into the “nutraceuticals” market. Through recent acquisitions, it has its own retail fish-oil brand, Omega Activ. For now, though, the company is still mainly in the business of selling menhaden as animal feed; according to an Omega Protein spokesman, more than half the company’s menhaden catch now goes to China and other Asian markets as pig and fish feed.
People who study fisheries often worry about “shifting baselines,” the insidious tendency to lose track of history and make decisions based only on living memory. It’s what drives fishermen to oppose regulation on the grounds that they had a good catch just last week, or last year—never mind how things looked 40 or 400 years ago. And yet, if you need a sense for how bad things have gotten with menhaden, sometimes memory serves just fine.
In Maine, where they are known as pogies, menhaden were abundant enough in the early 1990s to be deemed a nuisance. Under hot pursuit by bluefish and other predators, whole schools of them would pile into narrow estuaries, where they soon consumed all the available oxygen and died. Horrified vacationers awoke to find fish floating in vast, stinking, yellow mats. Lobsters actually climbed out of the water in desperation. A headline announced, “Massive Kill Means Dead Pogy Season Has Arrived.” The good news was that Maine fishermen caught 60,000 tons of menhaden in a season then. Their biggest customer was a rusting, Soviet-era factory ship named the Riga, which had anchored offshore and was doing a brisk business grinding up menhaden to feed chickens and pigs back in Murmansk.
I got a first-hand sense of how abundant the menhaden were one summer 20 years ago, when I headed out of Rockland, Maine, at midnight aboard a fishing boat named the Bobby E, bound toward an amber light a few miles offshore. To get aboard the Riga, I had to step off the Bobbie E in the dark, clamber across great, elephantine Yokohama fenders floating at the waterline, and climb a skewed wood-and-rope ladder banging against the hull.
The Riga’s factory equipment was primitive. A noisy conveyor belt delivered the fish to a device like a paper shredder which reduced them to a kind of brown sludge, and then . . . but you don’t really want to know. Every surface of the processing area was caked with fishmeal, as if breaded and fried. Fishmeal also drifted up in the corners, like dust in the bottom of a cereal box. An American intermediary living on board told me he had killed a dozen rats in his cabin just within the past month.
What really stuck in my memory, though, was the abundance of menhaden. Riga crewmen, including the ship dentist, vied to work as “lumpers” down in the hold of the Bobby E. Their job, by the light of a bare 60-watt bulb, was to climb up the great walls of stacked menhaden and kick them down in an avalanche toward a large vacuum tube, to be sucked up onto the ship. They came out smeared head to toe in menhaden gore, but with 50 cents a ton in their pockets.
When I woke up next morning back in Rockland, that whole night seemed like a strange dream, and it still seems like a dream today because the menhaden soon vanished from the coast of Maine. The annual menhaden catch there is now close to zero, and it’s stayed that way for almost 20 years. In fact, in all of New England only a single bait company still fishes for menhaden. It’s based in Rhode Island but often has to travel to New Jersey to find fish.
A few people in Virginia still remember the Riga, too, and it serves them as a fallback line of defense. If there really is something wrong with the menhaden fishery, they told me, it isn’t the fault of Omega Protein’s menhaden fleet in Reedville.
They blamed it on the Russians instead.
In fact, the health of the menhaden population has always been the business of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), a 15-state organization that jointly regulates coastal fisheries. But seeing the commission in action does not inspire much confidence, even within its own ranks. It was a small moment, but seemed like a portent, when I got on a hotel elevator en route to a recent ASMFC meeting. The elevator voice said, “Going down,” and the only other passenger bleakly commented, “In so many ways.” He turned out to be the commissioner from the National Marine Fisheries Service. At the meeting itself, 45 people, mostly older white males, sat at tables arranged in a huge rectangle and collectively dithered.
They had previously decided to manage menhaden not just by traditional, single-species standards, but also based on how menhaden affect other species that depend on them as prey. A commissioner remarked that he couldn’t figure out how to do this kind of ecosystem management “in a pond in my backyard, much less in the Atlantic Ocean.” When a technical committee staffer said it would require $350,000 to develop rigorous scientific standards, a commissioner truculently suggested that activists in the audience come up with the cash. Then they voted to wait and see if the $350,000 might somehow turn up by their next meeting. Jim Price, who was there with his striped bass numbers, called it “management by procrastination.”
Until recently, scientists at both the ASMFC and the National Marine Fisheries Service repeatedly assured everyone that the menhaden population, though highly cyclic, was doing just fine. But Price kept saying otherwise, and other recreational fishermen—and, more gradually, fisheries biologists—lined up behind him. The failure of the menhaden, year after year, to come back in anything like the numbers seen even in the 1980s (much less the 1800s) also made the scientific assurances seem increasingly wishful.
The way fisheries biologists determine the health of the menhaden population is too complicated even for most commissioners to understand. As with other species, it involves a computer model with lots of assumptions built in. The model for menhaden has turned out over the past few years to be badly flawed. Until recently, for instance, it did not bother to calculate how many menhaden were being killed by bluefish, stripers, and other predators—meaning that a bigger take for commercial fishermen seemed sustainable. Then, in 2010, a Maryland state fisheries biologist working line by line through computer code noticed an error that effectively double-counted some menhaden data.
Finally, a peer review by independent scientists knocked out the most fundamental assumption in the menhaden model. When commercial fishermen talk about leaving enough menhaden in the water to produce 18.4 trillion menhaden eggs annually, they’re referring to an ASMFC standard. It’s based on the assumption that maintaining just eight percent of the menhaden population’s “maximum spawning potential” is good enough. That’s an unusually low number—“We don’t even manage some invertebrates at that level,” a Maryland fisheries biologist told me.
The peer-review panel said that the ASMFC had failed to protect the stock—and that verdict forced, at the very least, a show of change. At a meeting last year the commission voted to boost the eight-percent threshold to a minimum of 15 percent, with a target of 30 percent. It acknowledged for the first time that there had been “overfishing.” In fact, by its new standards, overfishing of menhaden has occurred in 32 of the past 54 years. It also made the somewhat Orwellian distinction that menhaden were not yet “overfished.” That is, they might be flirting with disaster. But they hadn’t arrived.
So far, none of these changes has had any effect on the menhaden fishery, and it’s possible they never will. Analysis by scientists suggests that rebuilding the menhaden fishery could mean cutting the catch by as much as 37 percent. But the commission has yet to decide whether to reduce the catch at all, or on what timeline. Commercial fishermen profess optimism that this process will work out in their favor.
The ASMFC’s critics, on the other hand, tend toward cynicism. “There’s a lot of politics surrounding this, probably more than in any fishery I’ve ever been involved with,” said Jud Crawford, a biologist with the Pew Environment Group. He worries that Omega Protein will thwart the process “or find a way to influence the stock assessment, which should not be possible in an ideal world.”
The cynicism derives in part from the commission’s one previous attempt to protect the menhaden. In 2005, responding to public protest, it set a limit on the menhaden catch in the Chesapeake Bay. But the limit was so high as to be “imaginary,” according to one ASMFC commissioner. “They would have had to significantly increase their fishing to reach the cap.” Even so, both the company and Virginia state officials vehemently resisted. Omega Protein’s lawyers drafted a legal brief, and Virginia’s then-attorney general, Bob McDonnell, used it to argue that Virginia could ignore the ASMFC cap. The eventual compromise was “a farce,” said Jim Price. “It’s now eight years without a single fish being saved.”
Virginia is already resisting any new limits on the menhaden catch. McDonnell, now governor, personally lobbied other governors before the ASMFC vote last fall to oppose raising the eight-percent standard. The state delegation has also maneuvered to delay any effort to rebuild the menhaden population, pushing for a ten-year schedule, twice the usual timeline for a recovery effort.
What will happen if the menhaden fishery ultimately faces a real reduction, on a tighter timeline? (A decision on the issue may come at the ASMFC meeting December 14.) A state senator in Virginia has already introduced legislation to secede from the ASMFC. But a more likely outcome would be another compromise, after years of legal wrangling.
Probably no one is more cynical about this process than Rutgers professor H. Bruce Franklin. After he published The Most Important Fish in the Sea in 2007, he said, Omega Protein sent a legal brief to the university, alleging factual errors and “implying that they were going to take Rutgers to court if it didn’t shut me up.” The tactic failed, but it touched a sensitive nerve for Franklin, who was once forced out of a tenured post at Stanford University for his leftist political activities. Asked what he thought was likely to happen with the menhaden fishery now, he hesitated for a moment, then remarked, “The line from Chinatown popped into my head: ‘As little as possible.’”
But there is one final outcome that might be even more disturbing than the messy political fighting and procrastination over menhaden: it could turn out that Omega Protein is not the ultimate cause of the problem. That would no doubt annoy some conservationists for whom the company has served as a convenient target. But much worse, it might mean the menhaden fishery is broken beyond easy repair.
Scientists say they simply can’t promise that making Omega catch fewer fish will lead to recovery of the population. In theory, it ought to work: a mature menhaden female can produce 500,000 eggs annually, enabling even a heavily fished population to bounce back when the environmental circumstances are right.
But the failure of the population to rebound for 23 years straight suggests that something else is going on now, said University of Maryland biologist Edward D. Houde, a member of the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force. One hypothesis is that it’s a periodic shift in weather patterns offshore, where the menhaden spawn. In the past, a “Bermuda high” in March seemed to sweep more young fish into the Chesapeake, promising a good year for menhaden. Or an “Ohio Valley low” kept them out at sea. But that pattern seems to have broken down over the past two decades.
The larger problem of climate change may also mean that more menhaden are bypassing the Chesapeake, said Houde, and moving into estuaries farther north, where “the habitat isn’t big enough to produce what used to be produced.” Finally, there is the dismally polluted state of the Chesapeake itself—to which, ironically, the menhaden may now contribute, by being served up as feed on Maryland’s many poultry farms and then returned to the water in the form of nitrogen runoff.
These are big, intractable problems. Even so, said Houde, reducing the catch now is about the only short-term fix available, and it’s the right thing to do. Such reductions in the past have brought about recovery for species such as striped bass, mackerel, blue crabs, and summer flounder—as well as for the commercial fishermen who depend on them. This time, moreover, it’s not just about a single species.
In Reedville, people naturally focus on the painful economic consequences if the menhaden fishery faces a reduction. But it raises the larger question: What will happen if the base of the entire Atlantic coastal food chain disappears?
Richard Conniff’s articles have appeared in Time, Smithsonian, The Atlantic, National Geographic, and other publications. He is a 2012 Alicia Patterson Fellow and author of The Natural History of the Rich, Spineless Wonders, and Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time. His latest book is The Species Seekers, published in 2011 by W. W. Norton & Company, Inc.
Photo ©Richard Conniff
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