The Most Important Fish in the Sea

Just when you think you have a handle on the most pressing issues of the day, you learn there’s a new one. The Chef’s Collaborative Summit kicked off today with a reception and Gulf oyster tasting, preceded by a few short speeches concerning the oceans. Alison Fairbrother of the watchdog Public Trust Project delivered the bombshell of the evening.

We know the difficulties faced by many wild fish populations over the years, and we’re familiar with a lot of the problems aquaculture causes. Perhaps an even greater problem is the mass harvesting of forage fish, or fish that feed by filtration of phytoplankton from the water. You have surely heard of swordfish and Patagonian toothfish a.k.a. “Chilean Sea Bass” and thus we’ve perhaps changed the fate of those species by consciously making different choices.

What you may not know is that a fish you’ve probably never heard of, the menhaden, is being harvested to the tune of 250,000,000 pounds per year only to grind up and put into feed for aquaculture farms, pigs, chickens, cats, dogs, and cattle. Now, you may ask yourself why cattle and pigs and chickens are eating fish, and that’s a very good question beyond the scope of this post, so let’s suffice it to say that it’s completely unnecessary. It’s also really stupid.

Without forage fish like the menhaden, the oceans would be nothing but a plankton soup. There have to be menhaden to eat the plankton and then predator fish eat the menhaden. That’s how we get fish like striped sea bass and wahoo. Take away the menhaden and you have broken the food chain and you have no sea bass, no lampreys, no sharks. You don’t even get to eat the menhaden yourself. That farm raised salmon on your plate likely did, or your cat or dog.

There are currently public hearings being held on the east coast regarding options for managing the menhaden fishery. It looks grim right now but there’s still time. For further reading please see this awesome book The Most Important Fish in the Sea. Most importantly, don’t eat farm raised fish unless it’s carefully vetted and watch out for fish meal and hydrolyzed fish protein in your pet food.

There are serious malnutrition problems occurring in several predator fish populations along the Atlantic Coast. This will be a harder project than saving the swordfish or Chilean sea bass, as we can’t see the name “Atlantic menhaden” on the menu or on the can of food or the grocery display. It’s sold under many different monikers of “fish protein.” It’s time to save the middle of the food chain. Please, watch out for generic fish proteins in your pet foods, fertilizers, and dinner table.