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Menhaden, a Little Fish That Could

Just this morning I was cursing my boat down the Rappahock River in Virginia, near the Robert Norris Bridge, when to my complete surprise, I came upon a Menhaden fishing team of boats. They worked dragging their massive nets to catch menhaden. Menhaden is a fish you will probably never find in a seafood market, that is unless they have a bait counter. Menhaden is sought after for many things including being a wonderful bait for crab pots. Native Americans early had learned the little oily bony menhaden fish wasn’t too good to eat, but was a great fertilizer. Local legend has it that back in the 1620’s the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims their trick of burying menhaden fish when planting corn. I am told some folks eat menhaden, but I have never met any. They are, however popular for bait and chum among crabbers and fishermen. Menhaden is reputed to be the best bait for catching Speckled Trout. Most experts agree menhaden is unfit for human consumption. However, the benefits for humans from menhaden are enormous. John A. Haynie was the second person of European descent to settle among the Native Americans on the Northern Neck of Virginia in the 1840’s. Watching what the Native American did with the little fish, Haynie and his brother Thomas had learned there was more to the little menhaden than fertilizer. In 1878, the two brothers set up a fish processing plant in Reedville, VA. on the Haynie family property. Their goal was to extract fish oil from the Menhaden that were then in abundance in the Chesapeake Bay. In 1811, in Rhode Island there began the start of menhaden oil industry. In those days, the menhaden were cooked then pressed to extract their oil. The oil was used for fuel and industrial processes. The remaining solids were used as fertilizer. When the Civil War ensued, Union soldiers discovered that menhaden were plentiful in the waters adjacent to Virginia and North Carolina. Word of the plentiful catch of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay quickly reached the North and set up to a Southern migration by several Northeastern menhaden fish packers. By 1845, the purse seine technique, an invention of Rhode Island watermen, had been developed and catching vast numbers of menhaden became relatively easy. By 1917, it was discovered there were many more uses for the little menhaden than for fertilizer and oil. Menhaden scraps started being mixed with feeds for poultry, swine and cattle. The oil was being used in the manufacture of linoleum, water proof fabrics and various kinds of pints. The end of World War II saw menhaden fishing grow and reached a peak in 1953. Atlantic Menhaden have supported one of the United State’s largest fisheries since colonial times. Atlanta landings of menhaden total hundred s of millions of pounds. The Chesapeake Bay is home to a branch of the present-day company that had its’ roots in the primitive processing plant built by John A. Haynie. Now a more than $100 million dollar fishing corporation, Omega Protein is North America’s leading manufacturer of marine protein and fish oil. It accounts for 70% of the menhaden caught in the United States and over 15% of the nation’s total seafood landings. Omega is one of the largest fishing companies in the US in terms of tonnage and one of the largest fish meal companies in the world. The Omega Protein flee includes 40 fishing vessels and 35 spotter planes housed at the company’s home ports and processing plants in Abbeville and Cameron, Louisiana; Moss Point, Mississippi: and Reedville Virginia. During the fishing season from April through December, Omega protein employs over 1100 people to supply fish meal, fish oil and fish solubles. Modern menhaden fishing utilizes spotter planes to find the massive schools of fish. The spotter plane pilot radios his find to the 170 foot long factory ship. Crews on the factory ship quickly launch two 40 foot long boats. The crews deploy gigantic purse seine nets. The pilot directs the small boats in their efforts to surround the school of menhaden which could be to a depth of 100 feet. The frantic menhaden thrash in the water and create a white froth that marks the circumference of the purse seine net. Next the factory ship moves into to pump the menhaden into refrigerated storage tanks onboard. When the tanks are filled, the factory ship recovers its two boats and heads back to a processing plants. While you probably will never eat a menhaden fillet, nor would you want to, the chances are you have benefited from one of its by-products. Chickens, cattle and pigs, are fed with menhaden enriched feeds. Pharmaceutical and cosmetic companies use menhaden products in their preparations. Who hasn’t heard of Omega 3 oil. You most probably have benefited from menhaden through eating other fish. Menhaden are a key dietary component for fish like bass, mackerel, rockfish, cod, bonito, swordfish, blue fish and tuna. Osprey have a taste for menhaden for their nestlings. Migrating loons favor the menhaden as well. While there were fears of overfishing, recent reports indicate that the menhaden is not be overfished. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) reports, “According to the 2015 benchmark stock assessment Atlantic menhaden are not overfished, and overfishing is not occurring. Biological Reference Points: Stock status is determined relative to the current biological reference points. The fishing mortality target is 0.388 and the threshold is 1.26. The target for population fecundity is 189 trillion eggs and the threshold is 86 trillion eggs. Overfishing: Based on the 2015 benchmark stock assessment, overfishing is not occurring. Fishing mortality in 2013 (the latest year in the assessment) was estimated at 0.22, which is below both the fishing mortality target (0.38) and threshold (1.26). Fishing mortality has stayed below the overfishing threshold since the 1960s. Overfished: Based on the 2015 benchmark stock assessment, Atlantic menhaden are not overfished. The population fecundity in 2013 was estimated to be 170 trillion eggs, just below the target of 198 trillion eggs and well above the threshold of 86 trillion eggs.” It is interesting to know that menhaden swim with their mouths open taking in enormous qualities of plankton and detritus like massive vacuum cleaners. The mighty little menhaden actually filters the water by purging suspended particles that cause turbidity. This allows sunlight to penetrate to greater depths encouraging the growth of plants which then release dissolved oxygen through photosynthesis. Scientists have concluded the menhaden’s filter feeding works to control the spread of devastating algal blooms created by runoff from farms detergent laden wastewater, over fertilized golf course and suburban laws. Menhaden, by consuming nutrient-rich phytoplankton and then swimming out to sea remove significant percentages of excess nitrogen and phosphorus that cause algal overgrowth. Like the Oyster, menhaden help keep the bay clean. Marine biologist Sara Gottlieb describes it this way: “Think of menhaden as the liver of a bay. Just as your body needs its liver to filter out toxins, ecosystems also need those natural filters.” A new process has also reduced the awful odor generated when menhaden are processed. The locals used to call the odor “The smell of money.” For many watermen, it was exactly that. Several fortunate were made from harvesting a little fish you might never notice. The menhaden is a critical link in the coastal marine food chain. From its benefits as a fertilizer, feed supplement, pharmaceutical ingredient or food for other fish: the menhaden can truly be called a miracle fish.

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