When stocks of animals decline in the Chesapeake, alerts and articles go out, persuading residents throughout the watershed to take action, engage, write your congressman! Normally, these efforts drum up at least a modicum of support, especially if the animal is appealing. Appeal can be based on the animal’s beauty, like a tundra swan, or its deliciousness, like crabs. But some species are easier to sell as worthy of protection than others, and one recent example taking up headline space in print and online is the imperiled, yet distinctly unmemorable menhaden. Getting the public to care about fish in general can be hard, unless they have that direct line to our stomach or hearts. And take away those two qualities to be left with a fish that merely engages your intellect? Well, in that case, who cares?
Let me show you.
Clownfish! So cute! Just like Finding Nemo. Awwwww. (See that? Heartstrings. You’re ready to donate to the “Clownfish- Kittens of the Sea” foundation already.)
Mmmm. Rockfish. So delicious. Their numbers are down, you say? Well, we need to fix that! I love rockfish! (Connection to a fish species via a direct line to your gullet.)
But what about this little guy? Why care about him?
Ouch. Only a mother could love that face. And eat him? Well, since he’s a menhaden, he’s typically full of tiny, splintery bones, and his intensely oily flesh is also not particularly palatable for humans. Menhaden, in short, are a bit of a P.R. nightmare. To understand their importance, you have to go beyond their non-descript appearance and lackluster flavor to the role they play in the environment as a whole. They are, as it turns out, a ‘foundational species’.
When John Smith idly used a frying pan to fish from the exploratory shallop during his voyages throughout the Bay in 1608, he actually managed to catch something. So abundant were fin fish in Chesapeake waters that their sheer mass seemed innumerable, and certainly beyond the scale of human impact. One fish in that seething biomass was surely the menhaden. Silver scales gleaming like sheets of chain mail as they schooled throughout the Bay, the menhaden sought algae and other plankton, feeding other, larger fish even as they preyed with gaping mouths on microscopic plants and animals. Animals above the water sought menhaden, too, like osprey, eagle, heron, and bittern. Menhaden formed the base of the food chain in a thriving Bay ecosystem that would feed and support the colonists and their progeny for generations.
While other species within this thriving biological soup, like shad, would be hauled out of the Bay by the millions to feed the population throughout the watershed and beyond from first settlement onwards, menhaden, too, became a vital resource for Chesapeake residents. But as I mentioned before, menhaden are distinctly distasteful. Their value was not in their journey to the plate but rather their journey to the field- menhaden were used as fertilizer.
Today we use them in poultry feed and in fish oil supplements, in cosmetics and ground into chum for bait and aquaculture. A huge economy is based on the ready supply of this forgettable fish, especially in the Chesapeake and other estuarine bodies on the East Coast, and enormous numbers of menhaden are needed to satisfy the demand. Large-scale tactics are used to harvest menhaden, with schools identified from the air and rounded up by fleets of boats trailing purse seines.
As more and more industries rely on menhaden to create makeup, fish food, and fertilizer, the stakes are raised on this unassuming fish that, through filter feeding and its role in the food chain, is one of the things the Bay needs to stay balanced. This investigation by Washington, D.C.’s Channel 5 News sums up the environmental and economic impacts of an uncertain menhaden fishery stating, “Menhaden are the most important fish you’ve never heard of.” It turns out that if you want to make an animal appeal for advocacy, perhaps the most persuasive approach of all is to pull on their purse strings.