Where have all the menhaden gone? Menhaden are rich in Omega 3 fatty acids

Omega 3 supplements are normally manufactured using Omega 3 oils harvested from fish rich in Omega 3 fatty acids. That’s because different types of fish have different levels of Omega 3 fats, and there’s not much point in trying to extract those healthy Omega 3 fatty acids from fish which don’t have much.

However there is some concern that as the market for the Omega3 fats get bigger, in other words as more and more people begin to recognise the health benefits of the Omega 3 fatty acids, and therefore as more and more fish oil supplements are being manufactured, we are gradually killing off various species of fish rich in Omega 3 fatty acids.

And it would seem that there is some validity to this concern.

There’s a company called Omega Protein. This company is involved in catching fish and turning them into high Omega 3 foods, many of these for feeding livestock, though they also produce Omega 3 supplements.
Killing the fish rich in omega 3 fatty acids
This company has a very specific source for the Omega 3 which it uses in it’s products. This source is a small fish called menhaden, which is, or at least was, quite prolific in the Atlantic Ocean. The menhaden is extremely oily, and this is the exact reason why Omega Protein like them. Because Omega 3 fatty acids are found in the oil of the fish, and so menhaden are high in the Omega 3 fats.

When North America was first colonised menhaden were extremely prolific. Massive schools of these fish, which grow up to a maximum of about 1 foot in length, used to ply the coast of America and used to fill some of the bays and estuaries of the east coast to overflowing.

And in fact these fish were so prolific that for most of the 20th century they made up the largest catch of fish in the US, and made up a large part of the fish diet of human beings there.

Menhaden are very useful to lots of things

But menhaden didn’t just provide food for people. They are also an essential link in the food chain for countless other species of fish in the Atlantic, being eaten by dozens of species of fish as well as various birds and mammals. Menhaden is one of the most important food sources for many inhabitants, both above and below the water, of the Atlantic.

They were also extremely important in helping maintain the health of the water as they eat many of the small pieces of debris such as algae.

Menhaden help clean up many of the algal blooms which appear off our coast from time to time.

We’ve caught lots of menhaden over the years

Menhaden have been harvested for a range of different reasons. Early in the 19th century they were caught to be turned into fertilisers for farms and they have also been caught to provide industrial oil. For some time that provided more oil than whales caught by whalers.

Even by the middle of the 20th century the population of menhaden was massive, and they were harvested in huge numbers. In 1956 1.6 billion pounds of fish were caught. But by the 1970s catches had fallen by 80 percent.

Omega Protein are now continuing the slaughter, and with 61 ships and 32 spotter planes these poor fish have nowhere left to hide. Gradually catches have been declining and at the start of this century the fish were getting extremely hard to find. Not only that butI’ll algal blooms, which the menhaden used to clean up, and which result from excess nitrogen run off from farms in many cases, are getting worse.

As a result many states have now banned the harvesting of menhaden and only 1, Virginia, still allows it. As a result Omega Protein catches the vast bulk of their menhaden in and around Chesapeake Bay. Evidence is that Chesapeake Bay is turning into an ecological disaster, and the dramatic declines in menhaden may well be contributing to that.

Whilst there is little doubt about the health benefits of Omega 3 fatty acids there is also little doubt that the indiscriminate harvesting of fish for the purposes of filling Omega 3 capsules must be avoided. It is of no good to us or the fish if we eliminate various species of fish one by one in our quest for Omega 3 fats.

Fortunately the company that manufactures the Omega 3 supplements that are our preference harvests the Omega 3 from a very robust population of fish found in the southern ocean.

So there is one more thing for you to think about when you’re buying your Omega 3 supplements. Is the company that manufactures those supplements harvesting the Omega 3 sustainably?

Otherwise there may not be any fish rich in Omega 3 fatty acids left in the ocean soon.

To find out more about the history of the menhaden fishery and the benefits of menhaden watch this video.



Click here to read more about the decline of the menhaden and the role of Omega Protein

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