We have all heard of the benefits of seafood; in particular the omega-3 fatty acids that are found in oily fish like salmon, mackerel, and sardines. In fact, according to a recent article in TIME magazine, the market for omega-3 supplements has doubled since 2006, reaching $1 billion in sales.
One fish in particular, the menhaden, plays an important role in the production of omega-3. But its popularity has equated to overfishing and that has produced some definite negative consequences on water quality and other industrial fish populations.
Not a typical fish for the dinner table, the menhaden is a filter feeder and acquires its omega-3 potential by feeding on omega-3-rich algae. In addition to a general filtering of the water (up to 7 gallons per minute!), the menhaden helps to keep the level of algae in check. Algal blooms deplete oxygen, adding to the production of "dead zones" in the ocean. While the populations of menhaden being fished within its Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico range, have not necessarily reached a critical status, their reduced numbers have produced impacts that have been felt in other fisheries, like the Chesapeake Bay which wrestles with declining commercial fish populations due to dead zones.
But are there alternatives? One possible alternative being developed is the industrial production of the omega-3-rich algae on which menhaden feeds. Makes sense - just go to the source. As part of the emerging field of algae production (also an alternative to corn-based ethanol), it's been shown that omega-3 can be derived from algae in addition to flax seed and canola oils.
For fishermen who have been bringing in menhaden for years (it's also used for fishmeal for feeding poultry and farmed-raised salmon), a shift from commercial fishing boats to high-tech algae farms is not an easy or likely transition. This is part of the economic dilemma that we face when we consider what steps are necessary to protect species or the environment. As has been experienced in the automotive industry and other collapsed fisheries, important as these changes are, they are not without their major hurdles.
Click here to read the TIME magazine article by Tim Padgett.