In a 1997 episode of The Simpsons, evil tycoon C. Montgomery Burns claims that, under the tutelage of relentless environmentalist Lisa Simpson, he's become a benefactor of society because he sweeps hundreds of millions of fish from the sea, grinds them up, and turns them into "Lil' Lisa's patented animal slurry"—"a high-protein feed for farm animals, insulation for low-income housing, a powerful explosive and a top-notch engine coolant." "Best of all," he boasts, "it's made from 100 percent recycled animals."
Few viewers would have realized how closely the episode mirrored reality. Mr. Burns' real-life counterpart is Tampa Bay Buccaneers owner Malcolm Glazer, the billionaire tycoon who also controls Omega Protein, a corporation that claims to benefit society because every year it sweeps hundreds of millions of fish from the sea, grinds them up, and turns them into high-protein animal feed, fertilizer, and oil used in linoleum, soap, lubricants, health-food supplements, cookies and lipstick. Omega has only one business, hauling in just one kind of fish and converting it into those industrial commodities. That fish is menhaden, and in 1997, just as Mr. Burns was proudly displaying his loads of ground-up fish, Omega was consolidating its virtual monopoly on what is known as the menhaden "reduction" fishery.
So what problem could there be with using the Mr. Burns process on fish that few people have even heard of and nobody eats because they are too oily and full of bones and smell awful? The problem is that menhaden are the most important fish in North America.
This little fish has long been an integral part of America's natural — and national — history. Menhaden were vital to the colonization of North America and the development of 19th-century American agriculture and industry. For most of the 20th century, menhaden provided the largest catch of any U.S. fishery, annually exceeding in both numbers and weight all other fish combined. More important still, by providing food for bigger fish and filtering the waters of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, menhaden play an essential dual role in marine ecology on a scale perhaps unmatched anywhere on the planet. And though menhaden have survived centuries of relentless natural and human predation, the current industrial onslaught on them may be unleashing an ecological catastrophe — including the future spread of red tide in the Gulf.
Blunt head, toothless mouth, pudgy body — a menhaden sure doesn't look like the superstar of coastal ecology. A mature adult is only about a foot long and weighs about a pound. Nobody will ever write a Moby Dick about the menhaden. Yet a school numbering in the tens of thousands can weigh as much as the largest whale and behave like a single organism. Watch an acre-wide school creating flashes of silver with flips of forked tails and splashes, zigging and zagging, diving and surfacing, pursued relentlessly by bluefish and striped bass from below and gulls, terns, gannets, and ospreys from above — and you're not so sure there's no epic story here.
When Europeans first arrived on the east coast of America, they encountered a living river of menhaden flowing with the seasons north and south along the coast, extending out for miles, and sometimes filling bays and estuaries from Florida to Maine with almost solid flesh. In 1608, explorer John Smith found his two-ton boat laboring through a mass of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay "lying so thick with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan." To the Pilgrims, menhaden were just another of the bountiful sea creatures God had intelligently designed for them, as described by an awestruck Reverend Francis Higginson in 1630: "The abundance of Sea-Fish are almost beyond beleeving, and sure I should scarce have beleeved it except that I had seene it with mine owne Eyes."
Because menhaden were essential to this natural bounty, they were a powerful hidden force in the colonization of North America. As Mark Kurlansky wrote in Cod: A Biography of the Fish That Changed the World, it was superabundant food fish that first drew Europeans — the Vikings, then the Basques, and later the British — to North American waters. Nineteenth-century scientists, partly drawing on the knowledge of generations of fishermen, concluded that menhaden, members of the same family as herring and shad, were essential to the diet of almost all Atlantic predatory fish, as well as many marine birds and mammals. As the ichthyologist G. Brown Goode put it in his monumental 1880 volume, A History of Menhaden, "It is not hard to surmise the menhaden's place in nature; swarming our waters in countless myriads, swimming in closely-packed, unwieldy masses, helpless as flocks of sheep, close to the surface and at the mercy of any enemy, destitute of means of defense or offense, their mission is unmistakably to be eaten." He wasn't far from the truth when he proclaimed that anyone enjoying a meal of American Atlantic saltwater fish was eating "nothing but menhaden!"