Turkey, Mashed Potatoes, Cranberry Sauce ... Menhaden?

After the Mayflower landed on Cape Cod, Tisquantum—a Native American better known as Squanto, who lived among the nearby Wompanoag tribe—taught the Pilgrims how to properly fish in Massachusetts’s estuaries. Seafood, in fact, likely played a much larger role in the first Thanksgiving feast than the fare we typically enjoy today. 

But Tisquantum taught the Pilgrims another important trick: how to plant some of their catch in agricultural fields. An acre of corn also seeded with fish has been said to yield three times as many ears. So early colonists buried river herring, shad, and undoubtedly menhaden, another fish in the Culpeidae family. Rhode Island’s Narragansett Tribe called this creature munnawhatteaug: “that which manures” or “he enriches the land.” Pogy, another nickname for menhaden, comes from the Maine Abenaki Indians’ paughagen, which also means “fertilizer.”

Menhaden act as fertilizer in more ways than one. They also help more generally to absorb and broadly redistribute nutrients in the coastal ecosystem. What’s crucial is that, unlike other species in the herring family, they only eat phytoplankton. In schools an acre in size, each menhaden can filter 4 to 8 gallons of water a minute, harnessing the energy that microscopic algae gather from the sun. When they’re eaten or decompose, they pass that energy through the food web.

Since few other fish capitalize on algae so profoundly and menhaden spawn prolifically, they became extraordinarily abundant on the Atlantic Coast. Menhaden once possibly exceeded all other East Coast fish combined in weight. Their huge schools were truly an edenic vision, if there ever was one. When Captain John Smith, the founder of Jamestown, Virginia, sailed through a school of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay, he told of “an aboundance of fish, lying so thicke with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (or barge driving among them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan: but found it a bad instrument to catch fish with.” 

But today, like so many other fish, the Atlantic menhaden has been overharvested. Estimated population levels have plummeted to just 10 percent of what they were historically. You’ll never find a menhaden on your plate—too bony and oily—but in the United States the fishery is second in weight only to Alaskan pollock. A company called Omega Protein harvests roughly 80 percent of the catch, which is then rendered as fertilizer, fish and livestock feed, additions to cosmetic products, and dietary supplements (since menhaden are rich in omega-3 fatty acids). The rest is used as bait in lobster and crab pots, or by non-commercial anglers who “snag” menhaden to hook on their lines in hopes of luring a bluefish or striped bass, which follow the schools.

Fortunately the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission took action to protect the menhaden, voting recently to cut its harvest by as much as 37 percent by 2013. That decision should be applauded. Menhaden aren’t as far toward the brink as river herring, which NRDC petitioned to be listed under the Endangered Species Act, but they’re also edging in that direction. So it’s good to see we’re taking early action to ensure the continued stability of this fish, which has been described as “the most important fish in the sea.” Now we must be sure to develop a management plan that will actually achieve this level of conservation.

“There’s really not much in the ocean that is as healthy to eat, pound for pound, as menhaden,” Peter Baker, the director of Northeast fisheries at the Pew Environment Group, recently told the New York Times. “If these other species [like bluefish and striped bass] don’t have menhaden in their diet it becomes less nutritious and they’re more susceptible to disease.”

And we become more susceptible, too. The tiny menhaden not only support the larger fish we eat, they also help decrease algal blooms, reducing the occurrence of hypoxic (low oxygen) zones. With the decline of the East Coast’s oyster beds, pogy are now more important than ever when it comes to filtering the water in our bays and estuaries. We have plenty of reasons to be thankful for menhaden.