The Most Important Fish in the Sea

Anyone who doesn’t fish has probably never heard of bunkers. But this fish, also known as mossbunker, menhaden, and many other names, once had a strong claim to being the most abundant fish on the East Coast, and anyone who wets a line below high tide between the Southeast and New England soon learns of it. People don’t eat bunkers because they’re extremely oily — but because they are, everything else does. Predatory fish rip through bunker schools so spectacularly that the fleeing fish sound like surf. Or did.

For nonfishers it may come as a surprise that more bunkers are caught by commercial fishing boats than any other fish in the U.S., and that the gross tonnage of the landings exceeded any other U.S. fishery until 1985 when Alaska pollock took over (bunker’s still number two). Menhaden oil is used in paints, cosmetics, and various other products. Their carcasses feed farmed animals. And yet commercial fisheries have demolished the humble menhaden over most of its Atlantic range. Today they are essentially gone in New England and scarce south of there. Within view of my own house is a bunker factory that now lies in ruin, and Gardiner’s Island, where three hundred ospreys, perhaps the largest population of these fish hawks ever known, once nested.

It is within this context that H. Bruce Franklin’s book serves as something between a polemic and a rant against the industrial bunker industry and the sole remaining company that continues its work in the Chesapeake, the only place on the East Coast where it is still allowed to fish.

The Most Important Fish in the Sea is an eye-opener and full of research tracing the controversy that has raged over this fish for more than a century. It illustrates one more way we haven’t learned the lessons of the buffalo and passenger pigeon. Franklin’s glimmer of hope is some evidence of recent recovery where the industrial boats are now banned. He wants the fleet out of business altogether. After reading his book, I agree with him.