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Tuesday, June 05, 2007

Save the ugly, smelly, little fish or else...

It lacks the glamour of dolphins and whales, but at the bottom of the food chain, the lowly Atlantic menhaden might be the most important fish in the sea. Bruce Franklin suggests we get it an agent or maybe a celebrity spokesperson before it dies out.

MARK AUSTIN THOMAS: The Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species is meeting in Geneva through June 15. Representatives from over 100 nations are discussing plans to limit commerce on endangered plants and animals. Increased protection for whales, sawfish and Brazilian spiny lobsters are on the agenda. Ever wonder how some animals get a lot of attention and others don't? Commentator Bruce Franklin says it all comes down to who represents you.

BRUCE FRANKLIN: The menhaden is a runt of a fish — small, smelly, boney and oily. You wouldn't eat it, and you wouldn't hang it on the wall.

Now, when it comes to saving threatened species, looks shouldn't matter. But they do.

We respond to the charismatic mega-fauna: the big, beautiful dolphins, whales, elephants, swordfish, polar bears. They inspire celebrities, money, boycotts and laws to save them.

So, will the new Darwinism mean that this runty fish has to compete on American Idol?

But this small, smelly, boney, oily fish just happens to be the most important fish in the sea.

Almost all our prized fish, as well as mammals and sea birds, feed on menhaden. They filter marine waters, averting algal blooms. Think of them as the ocean's liver.

Although the ecosystem needs them, more menhaden have been hauled out of American waters than all other fish combined.

Each year a single company, Omega Protein, boils and grinds millions of tons of Atlantic and Gulf menhaden, converting them into oils and meal that reappear as lipstick, chicken feed, linoleum, cat food.

Not surprisingly, the menhaden have begun to vanish.

Thirteen Atlantic states have now outlawed this rogue industry, but Virginia and North Carolina still allow it and that's a tragedy.

In the Chesapeake Bay alone, Omega Protein still sweeps up hundreds of millions of menhaden every year. In 2006, their catch was at a record low, and that's an ominous sign.

So, why do we allow it to continue?

Maybe, the problem is that the fish needs an agent more than it needs an advocate, someone to give it a makeover as they say in the business.

THOMAS: Bruce Franklin is author of "The Most Important Fish in the Sea." And in Los Angeles, I'm Mark Austin Thomas. Thanks for joining us. Have a great day.


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