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ďMenhaden — The Most Important Fish in the Sea.Ē That is the title of a book written by H. Bruce Franklin. What does that title mean? Why are these fish so important? One reason is because they are the favorite food of many fish, mammals and birds.

Most people arenít familiar with this fish because they donít eat it directly and you canít catch them with a hook and line, but they are famous for providing fish oil named omega-3 oil. Many of us take omega-3 supplements. The animals that eat menhaden also benefit from the omega-3 oils just as we do.

But omega-3 oil is not produced by any animal. It is a plant-derived oil. In the case of the menhaden, they get the oil from eating algae (phytoplankton), which are microscopic plants that grow in the water. They also eat zooplankton, which are microscopic animals that also feed on phytoplankton.

Here is where it really gets important. Many of the fish that we like to eat rely on menhaden or other filter-feeding fish for their food. They canít eat algae. If menhaden fish disappear, so will other species that rely on them. Even now as the menhaden population is about 8 percent of historical highs, the predator fish are eating other fish, even eating the young of each othersí fish. When you are hungry enough you will eat what you can get. We know that fish are eating crabs.

All that fish do are eat, swim and reproduce. We donít need for the fish to go running all over looking for food as they do now. We need the menhaden back at high levels so that the predator fish can store fat and receive omega-3 oils for healthier fish. There are other fish that have the same role as the menhaden: blueback herring, alewives, American shad and the hickory shad. But the story is the same. All of these fish are in trouble due to overfishing, habitat loss and pollution.

We need to stop the carnage of these fish being done by one company: Omega Protein based in Reedville, Va.

The politicians that accept money from Omega Protein should be ashamed of themselves for accepting a few dollars and a few votes to the detriment of the Chesapeake Bay. Those people who have positions to help bring back the menhaden should be ashamed because they donít have the courage to do the right thing because they fear for their position.

Those people in positions where they should have the knowledge and understandings of the importance of these fish but donít should also be ashamed. They should know that the more menhaden we have the more fish and birds we would have. And they will be healthier.

We donít need computer models or any type systems to gauge how the menhaden are doing. If you have lived a few decades and have been around the Chesapeake Bay or its tributaries then you know how many menhaden there used to be here. When you look now you see very few schools.

It has been wonderful to see how the interest in these fish has grown over the years. I commend all those who have been working to bring the menhaden back. We can hope now that those making the decisions regarding the menhaden will see that these are the most important fish in the sea.

Bill Bartlett, Valley Lee