Menhaden are "The Most Important Fish In The Sea" according to the title of a book written by H. Bruce Franklin. It may seem like a strange title being that most people have never heard of this fish. We don't eat it because it is too oily and too bony. It is not sold in stores but we use this fish to feed livestock as well as other fish in aquaculture.

There is a lot of history associated with menhaden. The Indians planted it with their corn, using it as a fertilizer. When the whaling industry fell into decline, menhaden oil was used to light the lamps and lubricate the wheels of industry.

These fish have been in decline for many years. One of the first places to take notice was the state of Maine. Back in 1879, they finally got a law passed - after much wrangling by other fishermen - that stopped the menhaden reduction boats from fishing in their waters (three miles from shore to out into the ocean). But it was too late. The fish were wiped out and have yet to return in any numbers.

As the years passed, other states noticed that menhaden were disappearing from their waters and they also enacted laws that prohibited the reduction boats from their waters.

There are now only two states that allow menhaden to be stripped from their waters - Virginia and North Carolina.

These fish were so numerous and prolific in the past that it has taken many years for them to be decimated by the menhaden reduction companies.

At one time, there were as many as 200 menhaden plants along the U.S. East Coast; some large plants and many mom-and-pop operations. The last one is Omega Protein, which is based in Reedville, VA. This large plant is mostly fishing in the Virginia waters of the Chesapeake Bay. For the harm that it is doing it should be shut down immediately. (Their main office is in Texas on the Gulf of Mexico where menhaden are also in decline.)

The menhaden are turned into fishmeal and fish oil. It is not necessary to feed fishmeal to animals like hogs and cows. There are many uses for fish oil but there is always something else that can be used without decimating the menhaden.

Why are these fish so important? First and foremost, these are the fish that other fish eat, more so than any other species. What we are discovering is that the fish we like to eat are also in decline because they are not getting enough menhaden.

We are also seeing that bluefish and striped bass are eating things that were not part of their natural diet, such as other small fish and crabs. These things do not provide the nourishment that menhaden offer and we are finding skinny fish with no fat.

This situation may also be affecting the fish's immune system. There may be a connection between poor nutrition and a disease that is affecting the striped bass - mycobacteriosis - that causes sores to appear on the fish, ultimately killing them.

Secondly, and not far behind: Menhaden are filter feeders. Today, they are the main fish converting algae that other fish can't eat into food that they can eat: menhaden.

There used to be many other fish that ate algae but they, too, have been pretty much been wiped out by overfishing, pollution and loss of habitat. These species include American shad, hickory shad, blueback herring and alewives.

We hear a lot about oysters, an animal that lives in and filters the water. And, because many of us love to eat oysters, they are getting the most restoration attention, even though a menhaden filters far more water than an oyster.

Oyster lie on the bottom most of the time unless they are raised in cages or floats. They wait for the tides or winds to bring them food, never moving from where they are attached, the opening of their shells almost imperceptible.

An oyster may filter 10 gallons in a day. Meanwhile, an adult menhaden swimming throughout the water column - its large mouth open all of the time - filters as much as 4 gallons a minute, 240 gallons an hour, etc.

Oysters can't filter all of the water in the Bay, but menhaden can if given the chance.

Menhaden eat phytoplankton (plants) and zooplankton (animals). They also eat detritus. Detritus can be almost anything else floating around in the water. As the water passes through a menhaden's gills, fingerlike projections on the gills, called rakes, trap particles that are then passed to the menhaden's stomach.

The reduction of algae in the water would reduce the dead zones that have been enlarging in the Bay. When algae blooms at the surface die, the algae sink to the bottom, using up oxygen needed by benthic creatures, who in turn, die.

Fish are not the only animals that rely on menhaden. Several species of birds eat menhaden - eagles, ospreys, terns, cormorants, loons and seagulls - as well as several species of mammals.

Menhaden numbers are in decline, especially in the Chesapeake Bay. For those of us who remember, there were hundreds of schools that could be seen from shore or in a boat. Today, they are mostly gone except for the very small menhaden, some of which make it past the purse seine nets of the reduction fleet to the northern part of the Bay only to be caught when they try to return to the ocean.

Why is this allowed to happen? My first thought is that there just isn't that much interest in a fish we don't eat directly.

Only those who are familiar with the situation realize how important this fish is. Nobody in Middle America cares. The regulators at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission could pass an agenda that would bring the menhaden back but there are too many foxes guarding the henhouse ("You hurt one of us, you hurt us all").

The Virginia Marine Resources Commission could but they don't have any jurisdiction over menhaden. In Virginia, the state legislature regulates menhaden. This is the only fish it regulates, which would seem strange except when one considers that Omega Protein makes donations to their election campaigns.

The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration could make decisions that could correct the problem but they haven't. Our congressional representatives could fix the problem but they have been scared off for some reason. Sen. Ben Cardin, D-MD, had a menhaden harvest moratorium in his draft bill to fix the Chesapeake Bay, but it was deleted in the final bill.

When I look at all of the problems facing the United States and the rest of the world today, I think: How are we ever going to solve them when we can't even solve the obvious problem with the menhaden?

We have lost enough of our wildlife in our oceans. The menhaden are the linchpin to the survival of the Bay. The loss of the menhaden would be an ecological disaster for the Chesapeake. Let's take steps today to bring back the menhaden.