Friday, October 05, 2007

The most-caught fish, but nobody eats it

kw: book reviews, nonfiction, oceanography, conservation

A poor metaphor: the primary herbivore of all the world's grasslands, prairies, and steppes is a gerbil-size creature we'll call a "wabbit". They weigh no more than a pound. There are no ungulates (deer, elk, antelope, sheep or goats), no horses, zebras, gnus, giraffes, eland, cattle, or large grazing animals of any kind. Just wabbits, eating grass, all grass, any grass. Larger herbivores such as swine are found only in forested land.

And the grass the wabbits are eating is super-grass, grass on steroids, grass with an attitude that makes crabgrass whine in a corner. Left to itself, it responds to spring rains by growing a couple inches daily, falling over once it gets a couple feet high (less than two weeks), the longer blades dying and decaying even as new growth pushes through, making an oxygen-poor stench that leaves the air nearly unbreathable.

Except for the wabbits. They eat it down to a nice, comfortable inch high. And their droppings are dry and powdery, nourishing the grass. Lots of wabbits mean short grass, clean yards, and fresh air.

Your "lawn", should you choose to cultivate one, presents a rather busy scene. A typical American front yard, 20x80 feet, is usually host to about thirty wabbits, munching away as they lollop here and there. It is all rather bucolic and peaceful. Except for the predators. Something has to eat the wabbits, because they multiply like, well, wabbits. Every dog, cat, wolf, crow, hawk, coyote, ferret, eagle, skunk, puma, raccoon and badger just loves the taste of wabbit. So every week or so there is a feeding frenzy as a half-dozen predators swoops into your yard, scattering wabbits everywhere as they manage to eat about a third of them.

Why not live on wabbit stew? As it happens, wabbits taste awful and the meat stinks; at its best it cooks up like leather, and it is drippily, slimily oily. Your housecat eats wabbit at every opportunity...but you can't stand the thought of eating one yourself.

Then it is found that ground-up wabbit is a great fertilizer on farmland, the oil is a great lubricant, and lightly-oiled "wabbit meal" is great for fattening up domestic hogs and other (non-herbivorous) meat animals, which do taste good.

Let a century pass. Wabbits are supporting a large industrial enterprise. Truck-mounted cannon-fired nets can snap up every wabbit on an acre of land in an hour's time. Smaller versions harvest your yard, with your permission, monthly.

Funny thing, though, you have had to buy a lawn mower. Didn't need one before. And you have to mow three or four times weekly, or your heavy-duty 12hp mulching mower clogs and stalls. Yards left unmown begin to stink up the neighborhood. Where you had thirty wabbits, now you have three, or five on a good day.

Your housecat seldom makes a catch any more. You have to buy cat food, made from wabbit meal. The wild predators you used to enjoy seeing seldom appear.

I could go on, but now let us circle back behind the metaphor.

This little fish, no more than a foot long, is the Gulf Menhaden, the most populous fish on the planet, and the object of the largest catches. Its nearly-extinct Atlantic cousin (which once outnumbered it 5:1) is still taken at a rate of 100,000 tons yearly.

Just like the "wabbit", the menhaden is practically inedible to humans. It is nourishing enough, but most people have to just about starve before they'll try one. It is the only fish which can be caught without any regulated "cap", by the "Menhaden reduction" industry, composed primarily of one company, Omega Protein.

As described by H. Bruce Franklin in The Most Important Fish in the Sea, Atlantic Menhaden were the fish the natives taught the 17th Century colonists to use to fertilize corn. They were so abundant prior to the 1800s that you could catch them with a basket. John Smith and his men tried catching them with frying pans, and caught a few. They soon learned better methods.

But it was their predators that really drew people's attention. Bluefish, weakfish, bass, tuna, led a huge and varied host of predatory fish to "harvest" menhaden almost continually. Menhaden won't take a hook, but bait a hook with a menhaden, or half of one, and almost any ocean fish will strike, and fast. In the analogy above, we'd be eating the dogs, cats, wolves, puma, etc. Just think, that can of tuna, were it from a land animal, would be a can of lion or tiger meat.

Menhaden are the animal at the bottom of the ocean's primary food chain. They eat planktonic algae (phytoplankton), where most other filter feeders such as cod or herring eat protozoa and other tiny animals (zooplankton). Zooplankton also eat phytoplankton, but are a minor competitor to the menhaden. Every Atlantic fish that can, eats menhaden; those that can't, eat the ones that eat menhaden.

Menhaden have been captured for use as fertilizer, industrial oil, and fish meal for two hundred years or more. Where they once seemed to literally fill the near-shore ocean from Maine to Florida, and throughout the Gulf of Mexico, now about one percent remain...and they still support the largest fishery on the planet, in terms of tonnage.

But their lack is keenly felt. Occasional algal blooms and oxygen-starved "dead zones" have always occurred. But now they are a yearly phenomenon. The dead zone in the Gulf of Mexico now grows larger than Connecticut, every year. Imagine if the grass in your yard, if allowed to grow, poisoned your neighborhood: birds fell from the sky, your cat suffocated in the yard, and you had to flee to the desert for some fresh air...suppose this happened for a month or two every year.

It is ironic that Omega Protein, though a monopoly, is fighting for survival. Not because of opposition, but because their base is shrinking, and every one of their "products" has better alternatives. Their market is shrinking as fast as the remaining menhaden stock. I wonder which will go to zero first...

Author Franklin works steadily, inexorably. In a feat of good history and good journalism, he shows how Atlantic fishing has progressed from Colonial times until today, the commercial and political climate that has led to a completely unregulated industry, and the glints of hope that this "vacuum cleaner of the Atlantic" might be allowed to regain some of its stature, to the greater good of us all. Imagine, for example, a Chesapeake Bay that again hosts oysters, crabs in numbers 20x of today, and large fish by the millions, in clear waters. All these depend on the filtering of a couple billion menhaden...which don't exist in sufficient numbers today.

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