"How is it possible
that a sizeable fish vital to the oceanic food chain and intertwined
for three centuries with the cultural histories of both natives and
settlers could nevertheless completely escape the notice of most
Americans and within a few short years be driven to the brink of
extinction for no valid reason whatever? This well researched and
vigorously written book--certain to be of wide interest to academic and
general readers alike--will tell you why."
--Lawrence Buell, Harvard University, author of The Environmental Imagination and Writing for an Endangered World
"This story of menhaden should be taught in every classroom of every school in the Chesapeake Bay Watershed. The fundamentals of marine biology and how an ecosystem fits into nature's design, using menhaden as an example, enhances a deeper understanding of man's place on the landscape of time."
--Representative Wayne Gilchrest (R-MD)
"By 1880 there were almost three times more menhaden ships than whaling ships, but since then only three authors have written books about menhaden, and only Bruce Franklin has told the real story. The Most Important Fish in the Sea is a valuable history, a desperately needed warning and a terrific read--a must for every advocate of marine ecosystems."
Conservation Editor, FlyRod&Reel magazine
“When I was growing up on Long Island, the Atlantic beaches were occasionally decorated with ranks of dead, smelly fish that we knew little about, except that they were ‘mossbunkers.’ I later learned that they were menhaden, but it took this marvelous book to reveal the ecological, nutritional, and economic significance of Brevoortia tyrannus. Who would have thought that the mossbunker, almost inedible because of its oily flesh, would be one of the most important components of America's commercial fisheries and the health of its coastal waters?”
--Richard Ellis, author of The Empty Ocean and Tiger Bone & Rhino Horn
you've never heard of them, but menhaden are the most important fish in
In this brilliant portrait of the oceans’ unlikely hero, H. Bruce Franklin shows how menhaden have shaped America’s national—and natural—history, and why reckless overfishing now threatens their place in both. Since Native Americans began using menhaden (a corrupted Algonquin word for “he enriches the land”) as fertilizer, this amazing fish has greased the wheels of U.S. agriculture and industry. By the mid-1870s, menhaden had replaced whales as a principal source of industrial lubricant, with hundreds of ships and dozens of factories along the eastern seaboard working feverishly to catch enormous schools of fish and press the oil from their bodies. Since the Civil War, menhaden have provided the largest catch of any American fishery, in many of these decades actually exceeding in both numbers and weight all other fish combined.
Today, one company--Omega Protein--has a monopoly on the menhaden “reduction industry.” Every year it sweeps billions of fish from the sea, grinds them up, and turns them into animal feed, fertilizer, and oil used in everything from linoleum to health-food supplements. But, Franklin reveals, there’s a glitch: this slaughter is devastating our marine environment.
The massive harvest wouldn’t be such a problem if menhaden were only good for making lipstick and soap. But they are crucial to the diet of most food and game fish, as well as many marine mammals and birds, and they filter the waters of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, playing an essential dual role in marine ecology perhaps unmatched anywhere on the planet. As their numbers have plummeted, fish and birds dependent on them have been decimated and toxic algae have begun to choke our bays and seas.
In Franklin’s vibrant prose, the decline of a once ubiquitous fish becomes an adventure story, an exploration of the U.S. economic and political system, a groundbreaking history of America’s emerging ecological consciousness, and an inspiring vision of the rapidly growing alliance between environmentalists and recreational anglers determined to save our most important fish.
H. Bruce Franklin is the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University—Newark. He has authored or edited eighteen books, including War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, M.I.A. Or Mythmaking in America, Prison Writing in Twentieth-Century America, and Vietnam and Other American Fantasies. Franklin has lectured widely and his hundreds of articles and reviews have appeared in publications including Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Science, The Nation, and Discover.