After a one year debate, members of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) agreed to decrease the annual harvest of Menhaden by 37% to allow the species to recover.
Most people think that fish fertilizers are prepared from the unwanted fish parts of the same fish that sit on our dinner plates. This is not the case. Large schools of a small oily fish known as Menhaden, are caught specifically to be used for bait, animal feed (aquatic and terrestrial), the health food market (omega 3 oils), and the fertilizer industry (emulsions, hydrolysate, and liquid solutions).
The amount of fish caught solely for these purposes is staggering. Approximately 450,000 metric tons (90 million pounds) or 4-5 billion fish are net caught annually in both the Gulf and along the Atlantic Coast. The new agreement cuts the Atlantic catch from 183,000 metric tons to 174,000 metric tons. Bait consumes approximately 20% of the catch while the other 80% is used for producing protein meals and oils.
The ASMFC estimates that the population of adult Menhaden fish is now at 8% of its historic “non-fished” population. While there will always be debate over what level of fishing is sustainable for any species and especially forage fish that reproduce rapidly there is no debate over the importance of this fish to food chains in coastal aquatic ecosystems. Menhaden are one of the oceans most important herbivores, capable of filtering almost 4 gallons of seawater per minute in their search for phytoplankton and algae. Menhaden are equally important as a primary food source for larger fish including striped bass and tuna and are frequently on the menu for many bird species, including osprey, pelicans, and eagles.
Many coastal ecosystems are in decline and continue to be damaged by fertilizer run-off that results in algae blooms, reduced oxygen levels, and ultimately aquatic dead zones. Menhaden are a valuable tool that can help these ecosystems recover by reducing and controlling algae growth. By allowing populations to increase, these ecosystems can recover quicker to the benefit of all parties.
Organic gardeners along with the agriculture community as a whole need to review the need and importance of utilizing fish fertilizers in their gardens and operations. There are no plant nutrients in fish fertilizers that can not be obtained elsewhere through the use of plant derived protein meals.
Interestingly, many fish fertilizer products are not truly organic as they have phosphoric acid and other synthetic nutrients added to them to improve shelf life and fertilizer value. Fragrances such as mint are also frequently added to mask fish odors.
We need to ask ourselves whether we really need this source of plant nutrients when so many other more easily utilized terrestrial options exist.
To learn more about Menhaden fish and their importance take a look at the book by H. Bruce Franklin titled, “The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America.”
Planet Earth is expected to have 9 billion people inhabiting its surface by 2050. Meeting the dietary needs of all of these individuals presents a significant global challenge to farmers, agriculture systems, and natural resources. Assuming a status quo in our diets, farmers will need to produce an additional 1 billion tons of cereal crops including wheat and rice and an additional 200 million tons of meat products including beef. In total, agriculture needs to increase food production by at least 70% annually.
Is this almost 2-fold increase in food production possible? An initial analysis of the situation has been provided in a first of its kind UN report, and concludes that significant hurdles currently exist if we are to meet this objective.
Two of the most important challenges to food production involve the quality and quantity of land suitable for hosting crops and the volume of clean fresh water available for supporting crops.
As reported in the “State of the World’s Land and Water Resources for Food and Agriculture” and in this press release almost all land suitable for growing crops (1.6 billion hectares) is now being utilized. Between 1961 and 2009 land dedicated to farming increased 12%. A similar increase in farmland is unlikely to occur over the next 50 years as a strong desire exists to protect forests and environmentally sensitive regions. During this same time period food production increased 150%. This productivity was generated using “modern” farming and agriculture management practices, typically using large quantities of synthetic nutrients, and very liberal use of a wide range of synthetic herbicides, pesticides, and insecticides. Unfortunately, these practices have resulted in significant soil and water degradation and there is now evidence of declining productivity. It is therefore unlikely that these same management practices can provide the increase in productivity.
This UN report attempts to categorize all available land that could be used for farming and concludes that 25 percent of the world’s “solid surface” is now “highly degraded,” an additional 8 percent is “moderately degraded,” 36 percent is “stable or slightly degraded,” and 10 percent is categorized as “improving.” Remaining land mass is barren or covered with fresh water. Land quality parameters used for categorization include soil nutrient levels, organic matter levels, compaction, salinity, biodiversity, and toxin levels.
In addition to soil issues, water and climate changes present serious challenges to food production. The decline in the quality and quantity of fresh water sources and poor irrigation practices are noted as is the struggle between competing needs including drinking water, industrial process water, and habitat requirements. Climate change has increasing become a wild card. Extreme weather events including floods and droughts have significant impacts on food production and are currently difficult to predict.
This UN report focused solely on land and water, but there are other equally important issues that need to be addressed. Clearly fossil fuel use in food production must be considered. Does it make sense to ship food between continents? Does it make sense to use fossil fuels to produce fertilizers and ship globally? How will plant nutrients be efficiently recycled at the local level? Can we change our diets?
Clearly new agricultural practices are required to meet food productivity goals. Methods that support “super-intensive” agriculture without damaging soil, water, and surrounding environments need to be developed. Additionally, urban and residential food production must evolve to meet the objective.