October 29, 2012 — The following is an excerpt from a recent story published by Earth Justice:
Something very unusual happened at the November 2011 meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The audience broke into applause for what the commisioners did.
They stood up for a fish that H. Bruce Franklin at Rutgers University called “The Most Important Fish in the Sea”—the Atlantic menhaden.
The menhaden is not a lovable, or famous fish. As Franklin describes it:
Not one of these fish is destined for a supermarket, a canning factory, or restaurant. Menhaden are oily, foul smelling, and packed with tiny bones. No one eats them—not directly, anyhow. Hardly anyone has even heard of them except for those who fish or study our eastern and southern waters.
Analysis: A recent article, “Speak Up for the “Most Important Fish in the Sea”’ published by Brian Smith in Earth Justice, encourages readers to speak out for Atlantic menhaden. Unfortunately, the article relies on misleading statements and claims about the menhaden fishery, which have been continually spread by petitions and features written by environmental organizations.
The article’s claim that menhaden biomass has declined 90 percent in 25 years is a selective representation of the health of the menhaden stock, because it does not examine the whole time series of available data. The length of time cited in the article (the last 25 years) begins during a period (the early-to-mid 1980s) when menhaden biomass was particularly high. Over the 50-plus years that data on menhaden biomass has been recorded by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), biomass has fluctuated based on the strength of menhaden recruitment (the number of menhaden that are born), and current biomass figures are similar to the levels seen in the late 1960s, when biomass was lower. During the late 1970s and early 1980s, several years saw especially strong recruitment, which were followed by years of high biomass. The decline that the article cites is part of an alternating cycle of strong and weak recruitment.
In reference to menhaden, the article uses the phrase “the most important fish in the sea,” which is frequently used without proper explanation. Originating from Rutgers University English Professor, Dr. H. Bruce Franklin’s book, The Most Important Fish in the Sea, the phrase stems from entirely qualitative judgments made by the author that lack scientific founding. There is no scientific evidence supporting the hyperbolic statement that any one species of fish is "most important," and promulgating this idea represents only Dr. Franklin’s opinion, rather than any scientific consensus.
The author’s Earth Justice biography states “Brian's wife Susan is a hospital chaplain and when they say goodbye in the morning, she says, "Save the planet." He replies, "Save the people."Unfortunately, Mr. Smith does not feel a need to “save the people” who earn their livelihoods in the menhaden fishery. A recent economic impact study conducted by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science highlighted the importance of the reduction industry to its home in the Northern Neck of Virginia: the reduction fishery employs almost 300 people directly, and many more indirectly, and contributes more than $80 million in economic output to this area. By using misleading claims and promoting drastic cuts to the menhaden fishery, this article ultimately endangers the welfare of hard working communities along the Atlantic Coast who depend on this vital industry.