by Najma Sadeque
Editorial Published in The Financial Post
There’s a fish in the sea that you wouldn’t eat to save your life. It’s distastefully oily, chock-full of tiny bones, and stinks to high heavens. Which is just as well because nature definitely did not design it to be eaten by humans. Yet it is considered to be the most important fish in the sea. Because it is the sole or primary food for most other bigger, predatory fish which we eat, as well as of sea birds. The world’s largest fish, the whale shark, which lives to 80 to 150 years old, which grow to over 40 feet and can weigh up to 15 tons, also thrives on it.
It is known as menhaden in the West. Over here it hasn’t even been extended the courtesy of a name appreciative of its indispensable role – at least not one we are familiar with. It’s just known as ‘trash’ fish because it constitutes that part of the catch that is unfit for human consumption.
But without it for the larger fish to feed on – salmon, tuna, cod, haddock and many others enjoyed by human diners – wouldn’t be growing to adulthood and brought onto our plates.
Menhanden not only boasts the highest population among all fish species in the world, it is far higher than all the other popular edible species combined. Once upon a time it saturated the oceans. Most marine creatures tend to congregate in ‘schools’ of hundreds; but menhaden would be visible from planes flying as high as 10,000 feet, the shoals of tens of thousands so densely-packed they would look like small islands.
The average adult menhaden fish ranges between a mere 9 to 12 inches long and weighs between 11 to 16 ounces (one pound). Virtually every ocean predator feeds on menhaden at some stage of its life. Up to half an ounce of oil can be extracted from each. Given that they are caught by the hundreds of thousands in each fishing trip, that’s an awful lot. Huge volumes are also responsible for their profitability since they sell dirt cheap per kilo.
Earlier, when the oceans were still saturated with marine life, unwanted fish, as well as small fry and juveniles of bigger species never had to be thrown overboard back into the sea because they were never caught to begin with. The nets had large mesh so that immature fish and the small menhaden which was food for the bigger fishes simply slipped through.
Today juvenile and small sized fish are no longer intentionally avoided; on the other hand they are intentionally caught. Today the nets are not only of small mesh so that nothing can escape, any and every kind of marine life is scooped up in unimaginably huge volumes. Today, because some commercial use can be found for almost anything and everything, no thought is given to the consequences of over-fishing, and immature fish are not allowed to reach adulthood and reproduce. As such, most menhaden that is netted is under a year old. The other problem is that because menhaden fishing is totally unregulated the world over with no quotas set, trawlers exploit them recklessly.
In fact, because over-fishing has led to the collapse of fish stocks of major edible species, many fishing fleets of the world have turned to catching fish for purposes other than human consumption, namely, for conversion into oil or fishmeal feed for chickens, cows and pigs, or fertilizer. Interestingly, the main consumers of menhaden are domestic livestock. About 98 per cent of all menhaden catch in the world is turned into fishmeal and cattle feed, oils and fertilizer, and certain parts are used in cosmetics.
The fishing for menhaden for livestock feed is criminally wasteful. Neither can the oceanic environment or the rest of marine life afford it. Cattle and chickens are not natural fish-eaters; they are vegetarians. Farm animals are forced to eat fishmeal in their feed because they have no choice. It is also totally unnecessary, because ground-up soyabeans, for example, which are grown in surplus make a cheaper and better food for livestock, while grass is the natural and best food of all. Today more menhaden is caught than all other fish combined globally. In the US, menhaden make up 40 per cent of commercial catch.
But menhaden are not just food for bigger fish. They provide another vital service that is indispensable for the ocean environment, which includes all marine life as well as humans who create the most problems for sea life. The menhaden is often referred to as a vacuum cleaner. It’s a pretty accurate visual description because it swims with its mouth gaping open. But it is also functionally correct because the menhaden serves as an invaluable filter that can take out unwanted matter from dirtied water.
The menhaden’s gills are so designed that it can filter up to 7 gallons of water per minute; the main purpose for this is to sieve plankton. As it turns out, this process is invaluable for cleaning up pollution caused by sewage and farm fertilizer runoff. Which is why the menhaden has been described as being for the ocean what a liver is to the human body. To quote one environmental writer: “The liver filters out toxins. Over-fishing of menhaden is like removing the liver; can’t live without it.”
The menhaden is nature’s instrument for keeping bays and estuaries clean and healthy. The menhaden’s food is phytoplankton, a single-celled aquatic organism, or micro-algae. This is where the food chain begins and ends with large land animals and carnivorous humans at the very top of the food chain. Directly or indirectly, over 99% of all marine life, depend on phytoplankton.
Because of huge numbers of menhaden constantly consuming phystopankton, excess growth of this micro-alga was always kept in check. Pollution leads to proliferation of algae, as many people may have seen in stagnant waters. The more pollution there is in coastal areas – due to sewage, and industrial and agricultural fertilizer runoff – the more the algae. But when there are not enough menhaden around, the algae proliferate, covering waters in thick layers and cutting off sunlight and oxygen from penetrating the water which is disastrous for fish life. When this happens, the entire food chain is threatened.
The other filter feeder that cleans the water is the oyster. But oysters remove plankton only from the lower water levels while menhaden remove plankton only from the upper levels. Both are needed as they work in tandem. Today both menhaden and oysters are in the process of being fished to death. This in spite of menhaden being naturally prolific.
Unlike most other fish that lay their eggs in mangrove areas or nearby on the continental shelves or in coral reefs, menhaden spawn far out at sea. Later the larvae are carried by ocean currents to inland coastal waterways where they mature. A female menhaden may produce 40,000 to 30,000 eggs during spawning season, but most are eaten by fish or seabirds. However, enough survive and within two or three days, they hatch and immediately join other marine life in the shallows spreading out from the river’s mouth shoals and in the creeks where they live for a year, growing to be about 3 inches long. Too soon they are captured in the course of irresponsible over-fishing.
Worldwide, menhaden populations have plummeted to half in the last decade. Marine scientists have reason to be alarmed. If there is no food for predator fish and filtration of water then the entire coastal ecosystems will collapse.
Already, in many parts of the ocean, unable to find menhaden, some larger fish are turning to other less nutritious species and are suffering from disease, sometimes covered with sores. Some suffer so badly from malnutrition, they lose their fat and shrink in size.
A problem with developing countries has for too long been copy-catting everything that does the West, including in technologies not re-examined for negative consequences, whether in agriculture or fishing or industry or in the industrialisation of fishing. Carried to unlimited lengths, technologies for over-sproduction in biological systems without leaving scope for reproduction and replenishment, has poisoned and depleted the world, and brought most of the world to grief.
Instead of simply making deep-sea fishing policies and calculating how much foreign exchange can be earned from fish exports, the government would be well advised to conserve the misnamed ‘trash’ fish, not only so that people can keep finding edible fish to eat and discourage fishmeal industries, but also to clean up our coasts with a couple of dozen more badly needed sewage and industrial waste.
At last year’s climate conference of the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP) involving more than 150 nations and 100 environment ministers, the head of UNEP warned that combination of climate change, over-fishing and pollution could cause the collapse of commercial fish stocks worldwide within a few decades – not centuries, which would be bad enough.
It must be remembered that a full one-third or more of the people of the world – over 2.5 billion – depend on fish for protein, and among other things, it cannot be wasted by unnecessarily converting menhaden into livestock feed for vegetarian farm animals who neither need nor want to eat it anyway.
Unfortunately, Pakistan’s concerned ministries and policy-makers tend to view all agriculture including fisheries, not so much in terms of first fulfilling citizens food needs and rights before exporting any surplus, but how much output and profit can be earned by asset owners and foreign exchange can be earned in the bargain.
As long as this narrow outlook prevails, Pakistan will not be able to genuinely graduate from the narrowly opportunistic selection of economic pursuits to a well-informed and balanced approach that serves the public interest first.