Last Tuesday, I took a beautiful drive out to Colonial Beach, VA. Sunset on the Chesapeake Bay was spectacular, something I’d never experienced before.
Riding with me were our Oceans campaigner Phil Kline, our Frontline Operations team member Caitlin Miller, and our Executive Intern Nadia Quiroga. Despite the distracting beauty of our destination, the reason for our trip was stone-cold serious: attending a hearing of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) on a widely unknown topic—menhaden.
Menhaden are small fish that play a gigantic role in the Atlantic marine ecosystem—and they’re in trouble. Similar to the delta smelt of the San Francisco bay, these unassuming fish are so vital to the bay’s ecosystem that last year, the federal government stepped in to enforce Endangered Species Act laws that stopped the delivery of fresh water to agricultural lands in the central valley. Menhaden is similar to the delta smelt in both size and vitality to the larger ecosystem as a species indicator.
Menhaden spawn and grow in the ocean. Unlike some fish that spend part of their lives in freshwater and salt water, its entire life is spent in the Atlantic. It feeds on microscopic plankton, tiny animals most fish and marine birds cannot eat, and turns that into a digestible resource. This makes menhaden a fish that other fish and birds of prey readily feed on. Thus, it’s a vital part of the Atlantic marine food chain.
Without menhaden, the Atlantic marine ecosystem would quite simply collapse. The alarming reality is that signs of this collapse — as evident in the health and population of menhaden — are becoming ominous.
The ASFMC has been dependent on fish population data from industry for years. It has therefore concluded that menhaden have not been overfished. Recent scientific advancements, however, have unquestioningly revealed that menhaden have been severely overfished for more than three decades. As a result, the ASMFC is now working to manage the health of the menhaden population. There have been hearings all across the Atlantic coastline, where stakeholders and the public can come to deliver their input about menhaden conservation.
No hearing is complete without the presence of the industry, and this industry is big and powerful. Omega Protein, the largest producer of Omega 3 supplements in the world, derives much of the healthy fish-oil supplements you take in the morning from ground up menhaden. Menhaden is also highly valued for its high protein content, which is similarly ground up into feed for livestock, pet food, and plant food.
Before arriving in Colonial Beach, our team learned from a colleague that the night before, another menhaden hearing was held in a high school right next to Omega Protein. An estimated 200 employees from the factory were in line to deliver public comments. The fact that this hearing was stacked with industry insiders is definitely fishy. The Governor of Virginia has been known to receive somewhere around $55K in campaign funding from Omega Protein.
The sad truth is that the tide is still against menhaden — as is the case for most marine life that cross our path.
I’ve started a petition so that you can deliver your very own public comment to the ASMFC and tell them you would like Atlantic menhaden to managed to benefit the ecosystem and ensure that fish, birds and other marine wildlife that depend on them have a food supply that sustains them all.
Despite being so small, and so unrecognized for so long, many have called menhaden the most important fish in the sea. As we realize how essential this little fish is to ocean life throughout the Atlantic, it may be the one that matters most.
Meena Hussain is an Email Campaigner and occasional blogger for Greenpeace USA.