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The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America Paperback – October 7, 2008

ISBN-13: 978-1597265072 ISBN-10: 1597265071 Edition: 2nd

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Editorial Reviews

From Publishers Weekly

Starred Review. Franklin, a historian and author of over 15 books (most recently War Stars), was inspired by his passion for saltwater angling to write this history of the all-but-extinct menhaden, a fish that's historically served an essential part of the Atlantic coastal food web, including human populations (natives and settlers both). Integrating his own observations, Franklin spins a grim but compelling tale of the role menhaden play in maintaining critical near-shore habitats, their utility to early Americans and the collapse of their stocks over the past 150 years. Beginning in Maine during the latter half of the 19th century, the menhaden decline has accelerated alongside the nation's economic and technological growth, in particular the increasing sophistication of the fishing industry. Effects are widespread: as the menhaden population thins out, so have bass, bluefish, weakfish and other species, while estuaries suffer catastrophic phytoplankton blooms that create long-lived "dead zones" in which nothing can survive. This informative, riveting narrative exposes the greed, short-sightedness and unintended consequences which nearly destroyed the Atlantic coast ecosystem entirely, and continue to wreak havoc in the Gulf of Mexico. Franklin's final chapter provides a measure of hope, describing the happy but imperiled recovery of menhaden populations along New Jersey and New England coastlines.
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.


"Franklin shows how anglers and environmentalists can work together to preserve this crucial species."
(Plenty magazine)

"Franklin's book on the runty menhaden is a killer whale achievement. It's an eloquent call to end the phony business of incremental regulation of fisheries that are rapidly being driven by industry into the abyss."
(Baltimore Sun)

"'prose is lucid and infused with an urgency that depends little on hyperbole and largely on careful documentation. His compelling narrative informs and enlightens."
(The Washington Post)

"Franklin's book is thus not merely an elegant and erudite study of a moribund industry, but an impassioned plea to return our ailing East Coast waters to a state of healthy equilibrium."
(Natural History magazine)

"This informative, riveting narrative exposes the greed, short-sightedness and unintended consequences which nearly destroyed the Atlantic coast ecosystem entirely..."
(Publishers Weekly, starred review)

". . .an optimistic book. It deals with a resilient little thing that, unlike larger, longer-lived species such as cod, readily bounces back if given the chance."

"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."
(Ted Williams Conservation Editor, Fly Rod & Reel, Editor-at-Large, Audubon)

"When I was growing up, the Atlantic beaches were occasionally decorated with ranks of dead, smelly menhaden, which we knew as 'mossbunkers.' 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)

"This a fascinating, chilling and yet hopeful account of fish we need for the health of our marine environment."
(Newark Star-Ledger)

"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)

"The history of this fish's exploitation for fertilizer and to manufacture numerous products is a fascinating slice of Americana. How menhaden have fallen prey today to a single corporation—with potentially catastrophic effects to the ecosystem—is a saga that will outrage every conservation-minded citizen."
(Dick Russell author of Striper Wars and Eye of the Whale)

"Franklin makes the case—persuasively—that the menhaden's role in marine ecology, and its story of decline, is 'perhaps unmatched anywhere on the planet.'"
(Philadelphia Inquirer)

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Product Details

  • Paperback: 280 pages
  • Publisher: Shearwater; 2 edition (October 7, 2008)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 1597265071
  • ISBN-13: 978-1597265072
  • Product Dimensions: 6 x 0.8 x 9 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 14.4 ounces (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.8 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (28 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #168,277 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

More About the Author

One of America's leading cultural historians, H. Bruce Franklin is the author or editor of nineteen books and more than 300 articles on culture and history published in more than a hundred major magazines and newspapers, academic journals, and reference works. He has given over five hundred addresses on college campuses, on radio and TV shows, and at academic conferences, museums, and libraries, and he has participated in making four films. He has taught at Stanford University, Johns Hopkins, Wesleyan, and Yale and currently is the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University in Newark.

Before becoming an academic, Franklin worked in factories, was a tugboat mate and deckhand, and flew for three years in the United States Air Force as a Strategic Air Command navigator and intelligence officer.

Franklin has published continually on the history and literature of the Vietnam War since 1966, when he became widely known for his activist opposition to the war. His pioneering course on the war and his book M.I.A. Or Mythmaking in America have had a major national impact, and he is co-editor of the widely-adopted history text Vietnam and America: A Documented History. Vietnam and Other American Fantasies, offers a sweeping vision of American culture into the 21st century.

Another area where Franklin's work has achieved international distinction is the study of science fiction and its relation to culture and history. In 1961 he offered one of the first two university courses in science fiction, and his book Future Perfect played a key role in establishing the importance and academic legitimacy of the subject. His Robert A. Heinlein: America as Science Fiction won the Eaton Award for 1981; in 1983 he won the Pilgrim Award for Lifetime Scholarship of the Science Fiction Research Association; in 1990 he was named the Distinguished Scholar of the International Association for the Fantastic in the Arts; and in 1991 he was Guest Curator for the "Star Trek and the Sixties" exhibit at the National Air and Space Museum of the Smithsonian Institution.

Franklin's first book, The Wake of the Gods: Melville's Mythology, has been in print continually since 1963 and is regarded as a classic work of scholarship and criticism. He is a past president of the Melville Society, and continues to publish about Melville.

Prison Literature in America: The Victim as Criminal and Artist established Franklin as the world's leading authority on American prison literature. His anthology Prison Writing in 20th-Century America is widely influential.

The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America
shows how menhaden have shaped America's national--and natural--history, and why reckless overfishing now threatens their place in both. The book has already led to the introduction of two bills in Congress.

Perhaps Franklin's most important book, however, is War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, which has been widely hailed as a classic since its original publication in 1988. In 2008, he published a revised and expanded edition that sweeps through more than two centuries of American culture and military history, tracing the evolution of superweapons from Robert Fulton's eighteenth-century submarine through the strategic bomber, atomic bomb, and Star Wars to a twenty-first century dominated by "weapons of mass destruction," real and imagined. Interweaving culture, science, technology, and history, he shows how and why the American pursuit of the ultimate defensive weapon--guaranteed to end all war and bring universal triumph to American ideals--has led our nation and the world into an epoch of terror and endless war.

Customer Reviews

4.8 out of 5 stars
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See all 28 customer reviews
This book is very informative and interesting.
This book is a wonderful social history of this fish and the cascading crisis that overfishing has caused.
Steven Forth
Menhaden are simply crucial to fish, birds, marine mammals..... and us!

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

32 of 33 people found the following review helpful By Mark K. Mcdonough VINE VOICE on August 14, 2007
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
About 25 years ago, when I used to have the time to take a random vacation now and then, I was taking the ferry to Ocracoke Island at the southern end of the Outer Banks of North Carolina. Last ferry of the day. It was night. Suddenly, the ferry was surrounded by an unfathomable number of leaping, flopping fish. And the school went on, and on and on. I was absolutely stunned. It was the sort of experience that pioneers talked about when seeing the endless herds of buffalo on the Plains.

I asked a local what kind of fish these amazing creatures were.

"Ah, they're just menhaden."

And that's the story on menhaden -- the amazing fish that everyone takes for granted. I bought this book (my wife: "You're buying a book on WHAT?") partly because my long-ago experience made me curious, and partly because of an interest in fisheries issues.

And what a pleasure. First, I found out that, at least on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, menhaden really are the most important fish in the sea. They convert the phytoplankton (small floating plant critters) into high-energy flesh, and thus become the primary food source for various sport fish, including bluefish. They also filter an astonishing amount of water (4 gallons per minute per adult fish), ensuring that sunlight penetrates deep enough to nurture eelgrass and that decaying phytoplankton don't choke all the oxygen out of the water. Even their dying is important -- bluefish rush into the giant schools and tear menhaden to bits, and the chunks the bluefish miss are a primary food source for crabs.

That is, if we don't catch them all and feed them to pigs and chickens, which is pretty much what we've been trying to do in one form or another for a couple of centuries.
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34 of 38 people found the following review helpful By R. Hardy HALL OF FAMETOP 500 REVIEWER on April 13, 2007
Format: Hardcover
You can't go to your seafood store or fishmonger and order them, and it may well be that you have never even heard of them, but menhaden are, according to a new book, _The Most Important Fish in the Sea_ (Island Press). Author H. Bruce Franklin also knew almost nothing about them until one day when he was fishing with friends at the mouth of the tidal Matawan Creek in New Jersey. He saw a spotter plane fly over the ocean to guide a boat to a school of menhaden, and then saw the boat haul in the entire school by a purse seine net. Franklin wasn't there to fish for menhaden himself; no angler does that, because menhaden stink and they are bony and "so oily that just about no human would chose to eat them". After the boat had taken its catch away, the bluefish and weakfish that Franklin might have been angling for were no longer there, because there was no menhaden for them to feed upon. It was not just a temporary void; industrial fishing for menhaden has been going on for a century and a half, efficiently wiping out the fish from waters off the east coast, and now working on the Gulf Coast variant, too. Menhaden does not just feed game fish; in an eye-opening book, Franklin shows that it is a keystone species and that its destruction is doing far more than depriving other fish of their accustomed meals. He also gives a history of the menhaden fishery and the reactions to it, which parallels our emerging ecological awareness, and also our ineffective attempts to restore ecological balance.

Menhaden get to be about a foot long. They look something like herrings and were often confused with them by the first settlers here. The oceans used to be full of them.
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful By Carolyn L. Karcher on April 16, 2007
Format: Hardcover
H. Bruce Franklin's The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden in America is a must read for anyone interested in the health of the marine environment, the history of the fishing industry and its offshoots, or simply fishing as a recreational activity. The story Franklin tells of a fish few have heard of is as gripping as a novel, the book is studded with lyrical descriptions of menhaden schools and the countless varieties of fish and sea birds that feast on them, and the voyage on which Franklin takes the reader through history, economics, ecology, and marine biology is epic in scope though packed into only 200 entertaining pages.

Franklin demonstrates irrefutably that menhaden are crucial to the survival of such highly prized food fish as striped bass, such delicacies as oysters and crabs, such endangered bird species as ospreys and loons, and ultimately even our bays and estuaries. That is because menhaden not only form the main diet of numerous fish and aquatic birds, but even more importantly perform the indispensable function of filtering the water by eating algae that otherwise proliferate into toxic blooms, choke out oxygen, and create dead zones. Over the past five decades, however, menhaden themselves have become an endangered species as a result of overfishing by a reduction industry that searches for them with spotter planes, scoops up whole schools in huge seine nets, and converts them into commodities readily available from other sources.

After detailing the ecological catastrophe that awaits us if this senseless overfishing drives menhaden into extinction, Franklin offers hope that we can still save our environment. His inspiring last chapter shows how recreational anglers and environmentalists can unite to protect menhaden from the reduction industry and how menhaden populations have rebounded wherever the reduction industry has been banned. This is one of those rare books that everyone can read with profit and enjoyment.
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