With its putrid smell, bony flesh and rancid oily taste, the menhaden would seem the least likely candidate for “The Most Important Fish in the Sea,” the title of H. Bruce Franklin’s brilliant new environmentalist study. But Franklin is not being ironic. The menhaden is the most important fish in the sea if you understand its ecological purpose.
While it is understandable that groups like Greenpeace would take up the cause of sea creatures at the top of the food chain, like the great whales or the bluefin tuna, Franklin understands that without the easily dismissed menhaden, those above it on the food chain do not stand a chance. This includes the human race as well, since the menhaden is particularly suited to cleaning up plankton-ridden waters. As one of the few marine specimens that thrive on microscopic plant life or phyloplanton, it is uniquely positioned to purify waters that have become virtual swamps as a result of the massive influx of nitrogen-based fertilizers from farms, lawns and golf courses. With much of the Gulf of Mexico having been turned into a vast dead zone by fertilizer run-off from the Mississippi River, there is a drastic need for the humble menhaden.
The villain in “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” is industrial fishing in general and a particularly odious company called Omega Protein, whose website informs us that they “market a variety of products derived from menhaden, an inedible fish found in abundant quantities in coastal waters off the U.S. mid-Atlantic and Gulf Coasts.” It might be inedible to human beings, but fish love to eat them. Franklin explains that what makes them unappealing to human beings has an irresistible appeal to prized food fish, including the striped bass and the bluefish. Once the menhaden eat phytoplankton, they convert it into omega-3 fatty acids that all living creatures require but are available from only limited sources, such as flaxseed, soybeans and walnuts. Unfortunately, the striped bass and the bluefish cannot stroll into the local grocery store to pick up a bag of walnuts.
Reading Omega Protein’s website, one would get the impression that they are mainly in the health food business. “Omega Protein is the nation’s largest producer of Omega-3 fish oil, protein rich fish meal, and fish solubles.” What they don’t tell you is that most of what they produce ends up as chicken or pig feed. Chickens and pigs of course can flourish on other foodstuffs, but the striped bass and the bluefish cannot. Like most corporations, Omega has one and only one goal and that is to make a profit. The top stock holders could probably care less if the ocean was turned into a vast dead zone as long as they are prospering. As a symbol of the irrationality of the capitalist system and the looming environmental crisis that threatens all life, it is difficult to imagine a more cold-blooded and criminal outfit than Omega.
Omega was originally a subsidiary of the Zapata Corporation that was launched by George H.W Bush in 1953 as Zapata Oil. It sold off Omega in 2006 to Wilber L. Ross, a leveraged buyout expert. So it should be obvious where this outfit inherited its corporate ethics. If they could make money processing human flesh, they probably would.
H. Bruce Franklin first found out about the menhaden plight on salt water fishing expeditions off the New Jersey coast and in Chesapeake Bay, where Omega still has the right to use industrial fishing techniques to catch millions of the endangered menhaden. Deprived of the menhaden, the local game fish were showing signs of malnutrition:
This first fish looked healthy and normal enough to me, though I wasn’t used to seeing stripers this small being kept (the minimum Chesapeake size was eighteen inches, compared to the New Jersey minimum then of twenty-four inches, and now of twenty-eight inches). But Joe pointed out a small, rather unremarkable lesion near the anus, something I would have missed. This rockfish was the healthiest-looking we caught, however, except for one. The next fish, with bright red open sores gnawing deep into its side and belly, gave me a taste of that revulsion Jim must have felt back in 1997. One after the other, we caught diseased rockfish, each with horrifying symptoms.
If Omega Corporation only considers the menhaden in terms of what Karl Marx called “exchange value”, the original inhabitants of the New World–being primitive communists–were far more tuned in to its “use value”. They understood that the menhaden and other fish had enormous value as fertilizer and taught the pilgrims to bury them near corn. The Narragansett Indians called them munnawhatteaûg, which meant “fertilizer” or “that which manures”.
Not only are the menhaden useful as fertilizer, their oil can be used in the same way that whale oil was used in the 1800s–as a lubricant and as fuel. Not surprisingly, this led to the same kind of industrialized fishing techniques that came close to wiping out the whale. The menhaden were also reduced to a relative handful as vast purse nets in offshore waters on the Atlantic Coast yielded billions of fish. When alarms were raised about their possible extinction, the 19th century versions of Julian Simon dismissed them as chicken-little stories as Franklin’s epigraph to chapter five (“The Death of Fish and the Birth of Ecology”) would indicate:
I believe, then, that the cod fishery, the herring fishery, the pilchard fishery, the mackerel fishery, and probably all the great sea fisheries, are inexhaustible; that is to say, that nothing we do-seriously affects the number of the fish. And any attempt to regulate these fisheries seems consequently, from the nature of the case, to be useless.
–Thomas Henry Huxley, 1883
Considering the New York Times’s long-standing record of hewing closely to the agenda of corporate America, it is totally to be expected that they would repeat Huxley’s argument. When evidence began to mount in the early 1880s that the menhaden were being fished into extinction, the newspaper of record tried to get the commercial fishing industry off the hook:
It has been shown over and over again that man’s take of the sea fishes is utterly insignificant when the whole bulk of the fish is considered. Predaceous fish and birds, all the natural enemies of the fish, destroy more perhaps in a single hour than man captures in the year.
Although most of H. Bruce Franklin’s impressive scholarship is focused on the records of newspaper, magazine, industry associations and government agencies over the past 125 years or so, he does make one foray into popular culture that demonstrates this scholar’s eclectic and multifaceted approach (he has written on science fiction). He notes that a Simpson’s episode from 1997 very possibly alluded to the menhaden crisis. C. Montgomery Burns, the nuclear power plant owner that employs Homer Simpson and an all-round villain, launched a new business that sounds a lot like Omega. Trying to pull the wool over Homer’s daughter Lisa, a committed environmentalist and vegetarian, he has come up with something called “Li’l Lisa’s Patented Animal Slurry”, a high-protein feed for farm animals, insulation for low-income housing, a powerful explosive, and a top-notch engine coolant. When Lisa tells Burns that he is up to something evil, he responds, “I don’t understand. Pigs need food, engines need coolant, dynamiters need dynamite…and not a single sea creature was wasted.”
Considering H. Bruce Franklin’s long-time involvement with Herman Melville studies (he was the Program Director of the Melville Society in 1978 to 1979), his decision to write about the menhaden appears consistent with his own approach to Melville. Along with CLR James, Franklin is convinced that “Moby Dick” is a quintessential indictment of American capitalism. As one might expect, “The Most Important Fish in the Sea” is constructed around a rigorous historical materialist methodology and a sure command of the economic data.
If this wasn’t enough to recommend this powerful and insightful book, there is also the beauty of the prose that takes on Melvillian dimensions on page after page, especially the opening paragraphs of “The Most Important Fish in the Sea,” which is very likely the most important book you will read this year:
First you see the birds—gulls and terns wheeling overhead, then swooping down to a wide expanse of water dimpled as though by large raindrops and glittering with silver streaks. The sea erupts with frothy splashes, some from the diving birds, others from foot-long fish with deeply forked tails frantically hurling themselves out of the water, only to fall back into their tightly packed school. More and more birds materialize as if from nowhere, and the air rings with their shrill screams. Boats too begin to converge on the scene: the boiling cloud of birds has told anglers everywhere within view that a school of menhaden, perhaps numbering in the tens of thousands, is being ravaged by a school of bluefish.
Attacking from below and behind to slash the menhaden bodies with their powerful jaws, the razor-toothed blues are in a killing frenzy, gorging themselves with the severed backs and bellies of their prey, some killing even when they are too full to eat, some vomiting half-digested pieces so they can kill and eat again. Terns skim gracefully over the surface with their pointed bills down, dipping to pluck bits of flesh and entrails from the bloody swirls. Gulls plummet and flop heavily into the water, where a few splash about and squabble noisily over larger morsels. As some lift with their prizes, the squabbles turn aerial and a piece occasionally falls back into the water, starting a new round of shrieking skirmishes. Hovering high above the other birds, a male osprey scans for targets beneath the surface, then suddenly folds its gull-shaped wings and power-dives through the aerial tumult, extends its legs and raises its wings high over its head an instant before knifing into the water in a plume of spray, emerges in another plume, and laboriously flaps its four-foot wingspan as it slowly climbs and soars away with a writhing menhaden held headfirst in its talons. Beneath the blues, iridescent weakfish begin to circle, snapping at small lumps sinking from the carnage. Farther below, giant but toothless striped bass gobble tumbling heads and other chunks too big for the mouths of the weakfish. From time to time, bass muscle their way up through the blues, swallow whole menhaden alive, and propel themselves back down with their broom-like tails, leaving telltale swirls on the surface. On the mud below, crabs scuttle to scavenge on leftovers.