The small, oily menhaden is known as “the most important fish in the sea” because it forms the basis of the Atlantic marine food chain. You will not see menhaden at your grocery store, but it is present in the flesh of dozens of fish species that we catch and eat.
Many highly prized fish, including striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, Atlantic tuna, cod, haddock, halibut and redfish, as well as marine mammals, sea turtles, ospreys and loons, depend on menhaden.
Menhaden used to account for up to 70 percent of the prey consumed by adult striped bass. But a recent survey by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science shows that menhaden now constitute as little as 8 percent of the striper diet.
Other studies reveal that menhaden made up nearly three-quarters of the osprey diet in the 1980s; today it’s 28 percent. The survival rate of osprey nestlings in the region is as poor as it was when the use of the deadly pesticide DDT was widespread in the 1950s.
Industrial overfishing is threatening the entire menhaden population and the many species that depend on it. For the past decade, a company called Omega Protein has been grinding up nearly half a billion pounds of menhaden each year out of its plant in Reedville, Va., for use in pet food, fish meal and fish oil supplements.
As a result, menhaden abundance has declined by 88 percent in the last 25 years, to a historic low. Given the vital ecological role that menhaden plays, this is akin to a farmer who wakes up to discover that 88 percent of his soil is gone.