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The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and Americaby H. Bruce Franklin
Synopses & Reviews
In this brilliant portrait of the oceans' unlikely hero, H. Bruce Franklin shows how menhaden have shaped America's national (and natural) history, and why reckless overfishing now threatens their place in both. Since Native Americans began using menhaden as fertilizer, this amazing fish has greased the wheels of U.S. agriculture and industry. By the mid-1870's, menhaden had replaced whales as a principal source of industrial lubricant, with hundreds of ships and dozens of factories along the eastern seaboard working feverishly to produce fish oil. Since the Civil War, menhaden have provided the largest catch of any American fishery.
Today, one company (Omega Protein) has a monopoly on the menhaden reduction industry. Every year it sweeps billions of fish from the sea, grinds them up, and turns them into animal feed, fertilizer, and oil used in everything from linoleum to health-food supplements.
The massive harvest wouldn't be such a problem if menhaden were only good for making lipstick and soap. But they are crucial to the diet of bigger fish and they filter the waters of the Atlantic and Gulf coasts, playing an essential dual role in marine ecology perhaps unmatched anywhere on the planet. As their numbers have plummeted, fish and birds dependent on them have been decimated and toxic algae have begun to choke our bays and seas.
In Franklin's vibrant prose, the decline of a once ubiquitous fish becomes an adventure story, an exploration of the U.S. political economy, a groundbreaking history of America's emerging ecological consciousness, and an inspiring vision of a growing alliance between environmentalists and recreational anglers.
"Franklin, a historian and author of over 15 books (most recently War Stars), was inspired by his passion for saltwater angling to write this history of the all-but-extinct menhaden, a fish that's historically served an essential part of the Atlantic coastal food web, including human populations (natives and settlers both). Integrating his own observations, Franklin spins a grim but compelling tale of the role menhaden play in maintaining critical near-shore habitats, their utility to early Americans and the collapse of their stocks over the past 150 years. Beginning in Maine during the latter half of the 19th century, the menhaden decline has accelerated alongside the nation's economic and technological growth, in particular the increasing sophistication of the fishing industry. Effects are widespread: as the menhaden population thins out, so have bass, bluefish, weakfish and other species, while estuaries suffer catastrophic phytoplankton blooms that create long-lived 'dead zones' in which nothing can survive. This informative, riveting narrative exposes the greed, short-sightedness and unintended consequences which nearly destroyed the Atlantic coast ecosystem entirely, and continue to wreak havoc in the Gulf of Mexico. Franklin's final chapter provides a measure of hope, describing the happy but imperiled recovery of menhaden populations along New Jersey and New England coastlines." Publishers Weekly (Starred Review) (Copyright Reed Business Information, Inc.)
"In 1997, Mark Kurlansky published a history of cod that was engaging, brief and, ultimately, award-winning. H. Bruce Franklin's book about menhaden, 'The Most Important Fish in the Sea,' invites comparison. Kurlansky's charming book focused mostly on the human communities whose diet and economies depended on that fish. Franklin, however, concentrates on marine communities — specifically, what eats... Washington Post Book Review (read the entire Washington Post review) menhaden and what menhaden eat. Humans are not eating menhaden, which Franklin calls 'oily, foul smelling, and packed with tiny bones.' But we do eat the cod, weakfish and halibut — just about any Atlantic saltwater food fish — that eat menhaden. (If the name 'menhaden,' pronounced men-heyd-in, seems odd, consider the other appellations given to this fish over the years: masbank, marsbanker, mossbunker and bunker.) Franklin calls menhaden 'the most important fish in the sea' because of what they themselves eat: algae. The same algae that flourish in the runoff from paved roads and fertilized lawns. The same algae that, overflourishing, become a bloom of red or brown tide. The deadly chain continues: Red tides kill massive numbers of fish, the fish sink to the bottom, the plants that exhale oxygen and the shellfish that eat algae are smothered, dissolved oxygen is sucked from the water by the ensuing decomposition, and underwater dead zones grow. Algae blooms are increasing, partly because menhaden are declining. But since we don't eat menhaden, where are they going? Into linoleum, soap, paint and dog food. The oil from menhaden becomes lubricants and their dried carcasses become feed. The industry that converts menhaden into these products supports a fleet of ships and spotter planes, mostly owned by one company, Omega Protein, that capture billions of these fish each year. Their only natural defense against predators — swimming in dense schools — makes them more vulnerable to the boats that surround them with huge nets. The toll on menhaden, then, comes from overfishing. Where Kurlansky drew upon his experience working on commercial fishing boats, Franklin, a professor of English and American studies at Rutgers University in Newark, had no such springboard — just a summer's day fishing. Early one morning in 1999, Franklin and three other men set out in a 19-foot boat from Keyport, N.J., to catch weakfish on Matawan Creek. The Matawan is a major nursery for juvenile menhaden, and Franklin and his companions soon saw a swarm of birds feeding on bits of menhaden left by ravaging bluefish. Before long, a spotter plane materialized and a seiner followed, scooping up an entire school of menhaden. That spot on the Matawan was devoid of menhaden, as well as bluefish and weakfish, for many days afterward. Franklin, who has also written books about the Vietnam War and weapons systems, notes: 'I had no prior interest in menhaden and almost no knowledge about their history or the issues surrounding them. But this incident of minor strip mining was disturbing enough to push me onto the long trail that eventually led to this book.' He makes an exhaustive examination of issues, including class conflicts among commercial fishermen, fish-factory workers and recreational anglers; the government's role in setting catch limits as well as assisting the menhaden processing industry; and how yearly catch calculations are especially misleading for menhaden. Franklin lays blame where he thinks it belongs: 'All but two of the fifteen states (making up the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission) have recognized the disastrous consequences of the wholesale slaughter of menhaden and therefore have banished the reduction industry from their waters. This has left Virginia and North Carolina as the only states benighted enough, or still sufficiently under the control of the industry, to allow this assault on their environment. One result has been to turn the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake into ... the last vortex swallowing great portions of the remaining schools of Atlantic menhaden. These waters have therefore become a battle zone where the fate of both the species and the bay may be decided.' But Franklin does more than spout statistics and quote authoritative experts. He guides us on a journey through history, explaining how we got to this point. And 'we' really means 'we': people who live in Maryland, Washington and Virginia. Menhaden were the fish that Native Americans taught the Pilgrims to use as fertilizer for their corn. And today the Chesapeake Bay — once 'the world's capital of striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, croakers, blue crabs, and, of course, menhaden' — is suffering from expanding dead zones. Franklin's prose is lucid and infused with an urgency that depends little on hyperbole and largely on careful documentation. His compelling narrative informs and enlightens. Susan P. Williams is an editor of The Washington Post's national section." Reviewed by Jonathan YardleyJennifer VanderbesRobert G. KaiserRon CharlesSusan P. Williams, Washington Post Book World (Copyright 2006 Washington Post Book World Service/Washington Post Writers Group)
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Book News Annotation:
It is pudgy. It is nearly inedible, unless you like your fish extremely oily. Its name does not roll off your tongue easily either, and few Americans know of it or its contributions to US culture and history. The menhaden was the source of more fertilizer and oil than the whale, and the annual catch once exceeded that of all other fish put together. Franklin (American studies and English, Rutgers U.-Newark) compares those relatively benign days to now, when they are scooped up by the billions, ground up, and used up as animal food and lipstick. They are in danger, and so many are caught that other species starve for the lack of them in the oceans. Franklin describes the last hope for the menhaden, and an unlikely alliance of recreational anglers and environmentalists and their efforts to save them. Annotation ©2007 Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)
H. Bruce Franklin shows how menhaden have shaped America's national-and natural-history, and why reckless over-fishing now threatens their place in both.
In this brilliant portrait of the oceans unlikely hero, H. Bruce Franklin shows how menhaden have shaped Americas natural—and national—history, and why a single company now threatens their crucial ecological mission. The same pudgy little fish that once saved the Pilgrims from starvation and helped power the industrial revolution are today being ground up by the billions and turned into everything from linoleum to lipstick. The massive harvest isnt just devastating one fish, but the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. In Franklins vibrant prose, the menhadens decline becomes an adventure story, an exciting exploration of American history, and an inspiring call to action.
About the Author
H. Bruce Franklin is the John Cotton Dana Professor of English and American Studies at Rutgers University-Newark. He has authored or edited eighteen books, including War Stars: The Superweapon and the American Imagination, M.I.A. or Mythmaking in America, Prison Writing in Twentieth-Century America, and Vietnam and Other American Fantasies. Franklin has lectured widely and his hundreds of articles and reviews have appeared in publications including The Atlantic Monthly, The New York Times, Science, The Nation, and Discover.
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