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32 of 33 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon August 14, 2007
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.

The other big surprise was what a great read this book is. I've read pretty much every book on fisheries written for the general audience in the last decade, and let me tell you, it's sometimes a grim task. Not this time. I actually stayed up until 2 a.m. to finish this book. It's great read, blending history, science, and the author's personal experience as a recreational fisherman.

Before reading the book, I had some knowledge of the fact that there was once a large fish processing industry of some sort on the East Coast -- in many towns locals will point out where the "fish plant" used to be. I didn't realize that it involved processing menhaden for fertilizer, oil, and animal feed.

This industry has dwindled to exactly one barely profitable firm, protected by the infamously boneheaded state legislature of Virginia. The author passionately argues that catching menhaden for processing should be banned. And unlike a lot of environmental books, this one actually ends on an up note -- a complete ban on catching menhaden for processing in New Jersey waters seems to have led to a relatively quick recovery of the species.

This summer, I took another short vacation near one of Deleware's inland bays. And I actually saw some juvenile menhaden in the bay (the way they flop out of the water is quite characteristic) and a few menhaden minnows (called "peanuts") schooling in the ocean. May there soon be many more.
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34 of 38 people found the following review helpful
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. The Algonquin Indians had known for years, and taught the settlers, that planting some dead menhaden along with corn could greatly increase the yield. In the nineteenth century, pulling "guano from the sea" became a lucrative industry, and with the invention of the purse seine, the unlimited schools of menhaden were doomed. Menhaden reduction is still practiced, mostly by the essentially monopolistic firm Omega Protein. It continues to take menhaden out, not just for fertilizer these days, but also for food pellets for chicken and farm-raised fish (you do eat menhaden, just not directly) and (as the name implies) for trendy fish oils. Menhaden are the preferred diet for predatory fish, birds, and mammals, and that these species have to turn to other prey or die was known to the incipient ecology movement of the nineteenth century. What could not have been known back then and has only become clear in recent decades is that menhaden play a vital role not just by being eaten but also by eating. Menhaden are filter feeders, slurping up huge quantities of cellulose and other junk in the water, but especially masses of phytoplankton, including algae. They eat the nutrient-rich phytoplankton which is incorporated into their bodies and taken out to sea for further dispersal. Remove the menhaden, and the water gets turbid and killer algal blooms form; it is no coincidence that the increase in frequency of devastating blooms has come as menhaden are fished out of the waters.

There is some hope in this bleak story. Menhaden are resilient and they have the capacity to bounce back in subsequent generations. Franklin believes, as do many other fishermen, that when New Jersey banned Omega Protein's fleets from its waters that there was a resurgence of menhaden and of the bluefish and striped bass that eat them. He is concerned that this may mean that Omega Protein will be eager to get the ban reversed since, they will argue, there really isn't any problem. It might be that such a ban in the Chesapeake would allow the menhaden to renew their other great environmental role of keeping the water clear and healthy. Franklin's book is persuasive, and will help with a positive answer to the great question he poses: "Will enough people come to realize that the most vital mission of our most important fish is not creating corporate profits but restoring and sustaining our marine environment?"
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21 of 23 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2007
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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12 of 14 people found the following review helpful
on April 16, 2007
This book reads like a novel - a horror novel. Lively, colorful, and well researched, it appeals to the public to save the ecologically important menhaden before it is too late. Franklin's approach is interdisciplinary, combining information from marine biology, history, and anthropology. The arch-villian is Omega Proteins, which has a virtual monopoly on the corporate menhaden "reduction" industry that is causing the rapid demise of the little filtering fish. Although this book focuses on the East Coast of the United States, it has relevance to other areas that are experiencing over-fishing and resultant toxic algae blooms and fish-free "dead zones" (including the Pacific Coast). I hope this book can help raise public awareness and stop an environmental catastrophe before it is too late.
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8 of 9 people found the following review helpful
TOP 500 REVIEWERVINE VOICEon November 19, 2007
Franklin weaves a compelling tale that includes the biology, natural history, fishery development, politics, and ecological significance of menhaden to marine communities along the Atlantic seaboard of North America.

Menhaden are unusual fish. They are filter-feeders that can strain phytoplankton, tiny free-floating photosynthtic organisms, out of the water. That diet causes menhaden to accumulate high concentrations of oil in their tissues, and that makes them a poor food fish for humans. On the other hand, their oily bodies make them a prime food for other fishes, such as bluefish and striped bass - highly prized food fishes for human consumption.

In this book you will read about how over 100 years ago enterprising commercial fishermen found that they could use purse-seine nets to capture huge numbers of these tightly schooling fishes, take that catch to nearby shore facilities, and press their bodies to collect high grade oil in a pre-petroleum economy. They could also use the remaining partsof menhaden bodies to produce either fertilizer or protein-rich animal feed. Then, through increased fishing pressure and improved fisheries technologies manhaden schools that once contained billions of fish were decimated.

You will be amazed when you read about how fisheries scientists uncovered the significance of this low profile fish to the ecology of the Atlantic seaboard, and to estuaries, especially the Chesapeake Bay. Fewer menhaden meant less filter-feeding, and that meant more algae, and that meant ecological shifts...

Maybe menhaden ARE the most important fish in the sea - at least along the North American Atlantic seaboard.

5 stars all the way!

This book should be of interest to sport and commercial fishermen (though the latter will probably not like or believe the main theme of the book), ecologists, conservation biologists, and just about anyone interested in the environment and how the world works.
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6 of 7 people found the following review helpful
on November 23, 2007
I found this book when doing a search on "bunker". I am a new recreational angler in NY and while fishing for Striped Bass I usually use bait that is called "bunker". Curiosity ensued and I did a search and found this book. I started to read the background information and reviews and picked up a copy. I was glad I did. What a great read for my commute into NYC. It is chock full of interesting facts and historical data. It opened my eyes to the importance of this fish to us here in the Northeast and to the Atlantic coast in general. Just for kicks I decided to visit Omega Protein's site and as advertised they argue that they are managing the Menhaden (the correct name for this species) resource to as they say "remain productive for the foreseeable future." It was like I was reading the book all over again.

In my opinion this book was well researched and brings the facts home on an issue that I think is important to the recreational fishing community as well as the Atlantic and Gulf coast communities as well. If you are a recreation fisherman, someone who loves seafood or you just have a general interest in marine life and ecology then I highly recommend this book. It will open your eyes to a topic that I think needs our attention. Believe me this is coming from someone who isn't an environmentalist but the reality is spelled out and being objective I realize that the devastation of Menhaden will spell certain doom to many of our great sporting fish.

As I stated this book is a great read and should be on at least every East & Gulf coast anglers list.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on April 25, 2008
Bruce Franklin has done saltwater ecology a monumental service by explaining the sea's utter reliance on a healthy menhaden population, and exposing a gross dereliction of duty on the part of "regulatory" agencies designed to protect the marine environment. The little fish that few have heard of, is crucial to the health of every species of shellfish and gamefish. The menhaden's unique ability to remove algae and phytoplankton from the water provides a cleansing effect that is of incalculable benefit to all sea creatures.

Largely unfettered by meaningful regulation, the menhaden reduction industry has systematically plundered and devastated the menhaden population, first along the north Atlantic coast, and then the mid Atlantic. Now the ecology of the Gulf coast is threatened by the wholesale plunder of their vital menhaden population.

Franklin provides numerous examples of how the industry, represented now primarily by Omega Protein, continues their rape of the Chesapeake Bay and Gulf coast even though a token and meaningless cap was put on the menhaden harvest in the Bay.

If you want to understand why we need to immediately shut down the destructive menhaden reduction fishery, get this book, read it, then get in touch with your legislators and regulators. Or join the Coastal Conservation Association and become active.
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3 of 3 people found the following review helpful
on November 17, 2010
Anyone who cares about the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic Ocean, or the Gulf of Mexico should read this book. The author has written a real page turner on the little known, but incredibly important little fish - the menhaden. Here is the fish which can naturally remove the algae which creates dead zones in bodies of water, if only we can stop their decimation by the reduction industry company called Omega Protein. What's more, this nutritious feeder and filter fish serves as a mainstay in the diet of most other fish, marine life, and water birds. With the return of this fish to its former numbers, the health of the all other marine life would improve exponentially too. This is an interesting and well researched book which covers the subject from all sides of the issue, and includes the history of this fish in America from our early colonial beginnings. It will make you care deeply about this important little fish.
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on September 2, 2007
Written by H. Bruce Franklin (Professor of English and American Studies, Rutgers University-Newark), The Most Important Fish in the Sea is the true story the menhaden - a small, unappetizing fish harvested for its omega protein used in everything from animal feed and oil to linoleum and lipstick. Yet the once abundant menhaden has become increasingly threatened; as its numbers dwindle, bigger fish and birds dependent upon them starve, and seas and bays they filter becoming increasingly choked with toxic algae. Today one small company, Omega Protein, insists on its right to kill as many menhaden as it wishes, while millions of environmentalists, recreational anglers, and commercial fishermen seek to contest this unnecessary and dangerous attack upon the aquatic environment. A riveting cautionary tale about the potential catastrophe that could be unleashed should a small fish hardly anyone in America knows about go extinct.
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2 of 2 people found the following review helpful
on July 16, 2009
It often seems that the unsung heroes are those we only really appreciate when they're gone. Such is the case with menhaden. From colonial times, the United States has been closely linked to this fish "who enriches the land." This was the fish that fertilized the early colonists' corn and fueled the incredible seafood stocks of the Chesapeake. This is the fish most important to the health of east coast marine ecology. And yet, these are also the fish that have only recently been deemed deserving of minimal protection afforded by catch limits. Fishery policy towards the menhaden has followed a pattern of "Gold Rush fever" and subsequent overfishing. These little fish have borne the brunt of America's fishing technology, and it's time they get the attention they deserve.

H. Bruce Franklin really did his homework in researching this invitation to look closer at this unassuming, stinky little fish. Through his presentation of the history of menhaden and man, you'll find yourself endeared to them, ashamed at our mismanagement of them, and cheering for their potential recovery. This is a well-written, quick-reading book. It is enjoyable to read, albeit at times depressing due to the bleak state of our fisheries.
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