Menhaden: Why We Should Be Thankful for this Tiny Fish

It is Native American Heritage Month – and an appropriate time to highlight the importance of the Atlantic menhaden in Indigenous culture and conservation. Also known as bunker and pogy, depending on where you live on the East Coast, the name menhaden is a derivation of an Algonquin word that means fertilizer. This incredibly important fish is rich in oil, making it a great source of energy for plants, like Indigenous domesticated maize, but also for numerous marine and near-shore wildlife.

In pre-colonial times, there were plenty of menhaden for both people and wildlife to coexist, but today, these purposes are at odds: the single company that harvests more than 80% of menhaden across the Atlantic coast has openly exceeded its legal catch limit in the fish’s most important nursery – the Chesapeake Bay.  Now this company is asking the Trump administration to give them a pass on their flagrant violation of fishing restrictions, and we need your help to stop them.

Menhaden are an essential source of food for osprey, eagles, whales, porpoises, striped bass, bluefish and many other species.  Because of their energy-rich oil, they’ve also been commercially harvested for decades to be ground down into dietary and dog food supplements, and commercial fertilizer. Declines in the so-called reduction fishery industry led to one Virginia company – Omega Protein – harvesting most of the catch across the Atlantic coast.

Over the years, menhaden have undergone boom and bust cycles which resulted in the first ever coastwide catch limits in 2012. Since the establishment of the limit, the population has recovered significantly, even as Omega has been allowed to catch more and more menhaden in the last 7 years. 

The menhaden recovery is in large part responsible for the resurgence of humpback whales in an unlikely place – New York City.  Since our friends at Gotham Whale started keeping count in 2011, the number of humpbacks in the metropolitan area has gone from five to 272 last year – a staggering increase!. Anyone who has joined Gotham Whale on a sight-seeing tour has seen first-hand how the humpbacks chase giant pods of menhaden, eating dozens in one lunge.

Despite their importance to wildlife, it has been a long struggle to ensure the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) – the body that sets commercial fisheries regulations across the coast – sets limits that leave enough menhaden in the water to support healthy ecosystems that include humpback whales.  In 2017, one of the laudable steps the ASMFC took to protect menhaden populations was halving the catch limit in an important nursery, the Chesapeake Bay. Despite this legally binding catch limit, Omega openly violated it, and admitted so publicly.

The ASMFC took the unprecedented action of unanimously voting to find Omega out of compliance with the regulations it set.  However, the decision on what, if any, enforcement measures to take now lies in the hands of Wilbur Ross, the Secretary of Commerce. That is why we need you to speak up for menhaden – doing so will not only protect this important fish, but help the dozens of fish and wildlife that feed on them.

Indigenous peoples like the Algonquins, Naragansett and Penobscott tribes knew how important the menhaden was to providing sustenance to their communities. Today, menhaden nourish our communities in different ways – like bringing whales within eyesight of our country’s largest city, and for that, they should be thanked.

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