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The Most Important Fish in the World

It’s a shiny little fish, easy to catch, but not gastronomically appealing enough for us fussy humans to cook and eat. Scientists know it as Brevoortia tyrannus. New York fisherman call it bunker. To the fishing industry, it’s Atlantic menhaden.

In 1621, Tisquantum (“Squanto”) showed the Plymouth Colony Pilgrims how to supercharge their corn crops by burying menhaden with seedlings. Since the early 19th century, this silvery foot-long fish has been harvested commercially for use as fertilizer, animal feed, industrial oil, as well as bait for lobsters and larger catch.

In the 20th century, the abundant Atlantic menhaden fishery grew quickly as more uses were identified. Pulverized menhaden are now used as pig feed, and for aquaculture (“fish farming”) around the world. The recent omega-3 fish oil vitamin craze has upped the earnings potential substantially.

But the expanding industrial-scale fishing of menhaden, dominated by Virginia-based fishing fleets of Omega Protein Corporation, is seen by some as a potential environmental threat. And climate change is nudging their boats near New York waters. Menhaden are food-web intermediaries between tiny plankton and larger species, including the ones we prefer to catch and dine on. Aggressive “fish-mining,” with purse seine nets six city blocks long assisted by spotter planes, has watchdog groups like The Nature Conservancy, Pew Charitable Trust, Audubon, Earthjustice, Menhaden Defenders, Gotham Whale, Riverkeeper, and others campaigning to protect our local ecosystem by protecting menhaden.

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