Menhaden: The Most Important Fish You Never Heard Of

menhaden fish

It’s frustrating to have to add yet more deal-breakers to our dog food shopping criteria!

But as smart consumers, we really should tack menhaden fish to the end of that list. 

What Is Menhaden Fish?

Menhaden is a species of herring found in Atlantic coastal waters, Chesapeake Bay, and the Gulf of Mexico.

It’s edible, but not appetizing due to its oiliness; it’s better known as a forage fish.

Native Americans, who generally made the best use of everything in the environment, buried menhaden as fertilizer for corn planting.

Since the 1800s, menhaden’s primary economic value has been its oil. Menhaden is the main source of “fish oil” used in pet food as well as human fish oil supplements. 

Menhaden are omnivorous filter feeders that eat by straining phytoplankton, algae, and zooplankton from the water. In turn, menhaden serve as food for 79 species of bigger fish and other animals, including osprey, loons, striped bass, mackerel, sharks, loggerhead turtles, dolphins, and humpback whales.

They help keep the water clean, removing nitrogen and helping prevent deadly algal blooms. This also encourages the growth of underwater grasses, which provide a nursery for fish and shellfish, increase oxygen, buffer storms, and reduce erosion.

Menhaden fish are a keystone species, a vital link in the food chain. 

The high demand for menhaden is due to its high content of the anti-inflammatory Omega-3 fatty acids, EPA and DHA. They have the unusual ability to convert the algae they eat into these important compounds, which accumulate up the food chain in larger predatory fish. 

Sustainability Of Menhaden

Because menhaden reproduce easily, mature quickly, and swim so conveniently close to land, they’re easy to catch. They swim in large schools that are easily spotted by aircraft.

They’re harvested by the billions in purse-seine nets.

While catch limits have been proposed over the years, the fishing industry has vigorously fought such regulations, claiming that the population is thriving. 

The problem is, it’s not.

Local depletion of menhaden fish has affected game fish populations, like striped bass, that depend on it for food. 

The first official cap was set in 2006 by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). The most recent update recommended a 40% reduction.

But ASMFC doesn’t have the force of law.

Unfortunately, the Virginia legislature (which sets the quota in the Chesapeake) failed to adopt it, leaving it as a more of a suggestion than a law.

The main plunderer, Canada-based Omega Protein (which reportedly takes 90% of the menhaden catch), felt free to announce that it intended to violate the cap in 2019.

And it did so, exceeding the limit by more than 30%. 

The US Commerce Department responded by imposing a moratorium on menhaden fishing beginning in June 2020… two months after the menhaden fishing season starts.

Omega Protein is trying to dodge the moratorium by working with ASMFC and the Virginia legislature … the latter of which has received hundreds of thousands of dollars in political contributions from the company. 

Catch limits are well-intentioned, but they may be too little, too late.

menhaden fish shortage
Image courtesy of PEW Trust

Menhaden stocks have declined to less than 10% of historical levels. Their range has shrunk dramatically.

Caps also do not consider the needs of the menhaden fish’s natural predators … only the needs of the fishing industry. 

Experts urge a complete stoppage of menhaden fishing for several years to allow stocks, and the animals that depend on them, to recover.

The politics, however, make this unlikely.

The Problem With Water Quality

Water pollution in menhaden fisheries needs to be seriously considered.

The two primary fisheries are the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico.

PCBs, dioxins, petroleum hydrocarbons, herbicides, insecticides, heavy metals, and other toxins can contaminate fish that swim in dirty waters, particularly the body fat that is extracted to make fish oil. 

Agricultural runoff from as far away as New York State flows into Chesapeake Bay.

The Susquehanna River contributes the most freshwater to the bay, but it’s also the source of the worst sediment and nutrient overloads, both of which are factors in recent years’ large algae-fueled “dead zones” in the bay.

The Gulf of Mexico has also seen its all-time biggest dead zones in the last few summers, thanks to urban sewage discharge from upstream cities like Chicago, and agricultural runoff throughout the Mississippi River watershed.

The wetter springs and summers predicted due to climate change are expected to make the problem worse for menhaden fish.

The Gulf is also home to nearly 2,000 oil rigs, 25,000 miles of active pipeline, and 18,000 miles of decommissioned pipeline. Leaks and explosions are, unfortunately, not rare.

While the 2010 Deepwater Horizon disaster looms large in America’s memory, a hurricane-caused leak from pipeline network owned by Taylor Energy has been pumping up to 4,500 gallons of oil a day into the Gulf since 2004.

With no solution in sight, it could continue for another 100 years.  

Menhaden Oil Stability

Omega-3s are fragile and easily oxidized.

Rancid fats are harmful to consume, so the oils must somehow be stabilized. The antioxidant ethoxyquin is a prominent preservative. 

Ethoxyquin is a powerful petroleum derivative originally registered as a pesticide by its manufacturer, Monsanto. It was later promoted as an antioxidant.

It fell out of favor with the pet food industry in the 1990s after controversy about its safety and growing consumer objections made it economically less desirable. While insisting that ethoxyquin was safe, FDA nonetheless cut the maximum allowable level of ethoxyquin in pet food in half.

Today it is present in a small number of pet foods and treats. 

One place ethoxyquin is still used is fish meal for animal consumption (farmed fish, and to a much lesser extent, livestock, and pets).

Coast Guard regulations require all fish meal transported by ship to be preserved with ethoxyquin or equivalent product. This regulation was enacted due to the tendency of unpreserved fish meal to compost itself to such high temperatures that it catches fire, explodes, and sinks ships.

The Code of Federal Regulations states:

46 CFR § 148.265(c): At the time of production, fish meal or fish scrap must be treated with an effective antioxidant (at least 400 mg/kg (ppm) ethoxyquin, at least 1000 mg/kg (ppm) butylated hydroxytoluene [BHT], or at least 1000 mg/kg (ppm) of tocopherol-based liquid antioxidant). 

In 2019, tocopherol-based antioxidants cost $120/ton, BHT $20-25/ton, and ethoxyquin $5/ton.

Clearly, the financial incentive to keep using ethoxyquin is huge.

But that may not be enough to save it, given its downsides (potential for toxicity and cancer-causing metabolites).

Tocopherol-rosemary preservatives are now widely used in the pet food industry, especially by companies wanting to promote a more “natural” image.

Vitamin E complex (the seven family members aside from alpha-tocopherol) and rosemary oil are also lipid preservatives, but they may not be strong enough to preserve products containing high levels of Omega-3s

Ethoxyquin is still widely used in aquaculture.

Ethoxyquin can accumulate in body fat, and will be present in the flesh of animals who ate that preserved fish meal. Farmed species include salmon, catfish, tilapia, cod, trout, tuna, and krill.

However, the European Union suspended (temporarily banned) its authorization for ethoxyquin in 2017, and is considering a permanent ban. Producers are scrambling to replace it.

We may finally be witnessing the death of ethoxyquin.

BHT is the other alternative to ethoxyquin, but it faces similar criticism. BHT is GRAS (generally recognized as safe) but animal studies have reported cancers, developmental effects, thyroid changes, and endocrine disruption.  

A persistent myth about the presence of ethoxyquin in pet food is that, because it is added to fish meal before arrival at the pet food plant, it doesn’t need to be listed on the label. That is not (and never was) true. All ingredients present in pet food are required to be disclosed in the ingredient list.

So yes, it’s frustrating to have to add yet more deal-breakers to our dog food shopping criteria! But as smart consumers, we really should tack menhaden fish and synthetic preservatives to the end of that list. 

Related Posts

Popular Posts