Sunday, October 18, 2015

Munnawhatteaug: The Fish That Built America

Back in 2012 we posted "The Spectacular Rise and Fall of U.S. Whaling: An Innovation Story" with the intro:
Alternate title: "How Samuel Martin Kier saved the sperm whale by inventing the process to refine crude into lamp oil".
or not.
After that went up I was told "fish oil was actually much more important than whale oil" and that I should post something on menhaden.
So here it is.

From Southern Fried Science:

Six reasons why Menhaden are the greatest fish we ever fished.
Menhaden, Brevoortia tyrannus, is, without a doubt, the single most important fish in the western Atlantic. This oily filter-feeder swims in schools so large that they block the sun from penetrating the water’s surface as it regulates ocean health. Earlier this week, we were greeted by news that menhaden stocks were rebounded, yet despite their near-universal importance in the western Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico, most Americans have near heard of a menhaden.
Let’s fix that. Here are six reasons you should know what a menhaden is.

1. Menhaden go by many names.
The Narragansett called them munnawhatteaug. Colonists called them poghaden, bony-fish, whitefish, pogy, mossbunker, fat-bat. Perhaps most endearingly, menhaden were called bug-heads, thanks to the parasitic isopod that was often found in place of their tongues. They have also been called “the most important fish in the sea“.
No matter what you call them, Atlantic menhaden, Brevoortia tyrannus, is the little morning tyrant, and they are magnificent.

2. The United States of America grew on the backs of menhaden.
The Narragansett word for menhaden, munnawhatteaug, translates as “that which fertilizes”. In the legend of Plymouth Colony, a local tribe taught those first settlers to plant a fish with their corn to make it grow stronger. That fish was a menhaden. For most of the history of the menhaden fishery, oil and fertilizer were the fish’s primary uses.

3. Menhaden are bigger than whales.
You could be forgiven if you thought that the American industrial revolution was powered by whale oil. The glossy lubricant was used primarily for lighting in pre-industrial America. By the time Herman Melville published Moby Dick, the golden age of whaling was already in decline. The Civil War was its death blow. Out of that conflict came the industrial menhaden industry. Seeing the vast wealth of the Chesapeake Bay, Northern industrialists headed south to exploit these rich, dense fish. Whale ships were converted and the mighty purse seine made its first appearance.
By 1880, half a billion menhaden were being rendered into oil and fertilizer. There were almost three times as many menhaden ships as whaling ship. A menhaden boat could produce more oil in a week than a whaling ship could during it’s entire, multi-year voyage, and it could do so close to shore and out of harms way....MORE
So there you go.
However, when asked to put on my academic hat, I will still use whale oil/crude oil as a classic case of commodity substitution and the mighty leviathan's product as only the second example of resource (near) exhaustion, next to guano.

Speaking of which, have you ever heard the story of NYSE listed New York Guano?

Related: "Sexy Clothes and Dim Lights ca. 1900".