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H. Bruce Franklin’s Most Important Books

Menhaden, photo from The Encyclopedia of Food by Artemas Ward

Menhaden, photo from The Encyclopedia of Food by Artemas Ward. By Artemas Ward - Internet Archive identifier, Public Domain, Link.

H. Bruce Franklin is a former Air Force navigator and intelligence officer, a progressive activist, and the John Cotton Dana professor emeritus of English and American Studies at Rutgers University. He is the author or editor of nineteen books and received lifetime achievement awards from several major academic organizations. Doug Storm spent nine years as a volunteer for Bloomington, Indiana’s community radio station, where he produced and hosted its longest-running public affairs show, Interchange.

I had known renowned cultural historian H. Bruce Franklin’s work before I interviewed him for the radio. He is the author of one of my favorite books on Herman Melville, The Wake of the Gods, published by Stanford University Press in 1963.

It is almost hard to fathom that for fifty-nine years—from 1963 until today, with recent online pieces about Ukraine and Russia—Franklin has consistently exposed the workings of U.S. imperialism at home and abroad. In 2018, when I learned that he had released a new book, I immediately contacted the publisher for an interview.

That book was Crash Course: From the Good War to the Forever War. In it, memoir, history, and analysis are artfully woven together. Crash Course gives readers a unique, firsthand look at the building of the U.S. empire and the damage it has wrought. It also finds startling parallels between U.S. foreign military exploits and the equally brutal tactics used on the home front to crush organized labor, antiwar, and civil rights movements.

While preparing for that interview, I was amazed to see that my own narrow interest in all things Melville had limited my recognition of Franklin’s great breadth of scholarship. Afterward, I worked hard to correct my vision. However, I also wanted to know which of his many books Bruce thought were his best or most influential—so I asked him.

Aside from Crash Course, he mentioned War Stars: The Superweapon and the U.S. Imagination, originally published in 1988, and the book that ignited a mass movement, The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America, from 2008. What follows is a shortened and edited version of our radio interview on Crash Course and our email correspondence about his two other great books.

Pick up any book by Franklin and inside will be the key to so many mysteries about our human predicament: from ruthless militarism to prison ideology and ecological devastation, Franklin has charted a historical “crash course.”

Doug Storm

Doug Storm: I assume most folks think of the Second World War as a good war. Do you think that as well?

Bruce Franklin: No, unfortunately, we lost that war. We thought we were fighting against militarism, fascism, and imperialism. If so, we lost. We lost partly because of how we fought that war, using air attacks on civilian populations as a main strategy. This strategy climaxed with us exploding nuclear bombs on the civilian population of two Japanese cities. That is how we lost the good war.

DS: You say we lost by how we fought it. How you fight a war the right way may be a problem.

BF: A debate that has gone on for centuries.

DS: Right, the so-called just war.

BF: Yes. To understand the Vietnam War, we must see that Võ Nguyên Giáp, who was the main Vietnamese theoretician of that war, made the moral factor the decisive factor. It was how he developed the strategy that defeated France and then the United States. It was a strategy based on belief in the “just war.”

DS: How does one have a moral strategy? What was Giáp’s strategy?

BF: The Vietnamese were fighting a just war against imperialism and their opponents were fighting an imperialist war, an unjust war. People, first in Vietnam, and then in France and in the United States, came to understand this. All of that depended on a change of consciousness. To understand where we are today, we have to comprehend that tens of millions of people in the United States came to realize something about our own government, based on what it does, what it was doing: that we live in an empire. That awareness may decide the outcome of today’s pitched battle for the future of our nation and the planet.

DS: As the Second World War ended in so-called victory, you also note that it is plausible to argue that the Vietnam War began at that very moment.

BF: Yes, this is a key moment of post-Second World War history. This is also the moment when my life intersects with history: August 14, 1945; Victory over Japan Day. I was eleven years old in the back of a pickup truck filled with other kids. We were part of an impromptu motorcade driving around in our Brooklyn neighborhood. Wherever we went, throngs filled the streets. Everybody was cheering, waving flags, dancing in the street. We kids were screaming our hearts out, “Peace! Peace! The war is over!” We all believed that this was it. We’d won. Now there was going to be a future of peace and prosperity for the United States and us young people.

That very day was the beginning of the August Revolution in Vietnam when the Vietnamese people rose up and defeated the Japanese occupiers. Two weeks later, on September 1, in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh read the Declaration of Independence of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam. It began with a quote from the U.S. Declaration of Independence. Ho was reading it to half a million Vietnamese, gathered there to celebrate their independence. Suddenly, two odd-looking war planes appeared overhead. They were P-38 Lightnings. When those half a million people recognized them as U.S. planes, they united as one person in a great thunderous cheer. They believed that we, of all people, would support their independence from France’s rule.

Little did they know that on August 22, ten days earlier, French President Charles de Gaulle had gone to Washington and gotten President Truman to agree to finance, support, arm, and provide transport for a French invasion of Vietnam. Soon, a dozen U.S. troop ships would carry the invading French troops, armed by the United States and including whole units of Nazi troops (even Waffen SS, the combat branch of the Nazi Party). Before they could sail, UK forces arrived in Vietnam. The United Kingdom rearmed the Japanese soldiers that the Vietnamese had disarmed. UK war planes joined the remnants of the Japanese air force in bombing and strafing the Vietnamese. When the U.S. troop ships arrived in Saigon in the late fall of 1945, they were met on the docks by rearmed Japanese soldiers, who saluted them. Hovering over the troop ships was a tower manned by Japanese soldiers with machine guns. Every single enlisted man on that flotilla of troop ships drew up a petition and signed it. It denounced imperialism and expressed their outrage at what we were doing to subjugate the people of Vietnam. This was the beginning of the antiwar movement.

DS: I like how personal your book is. It is about Franklin as a child, as a boy, who has to understand these things. That is useful to try to understand someone like you who is so critical of the United States and its militarism, who begins just like any other patriot.

BF: I was more so! I was very gung-ho, having been acculturated during the Second World War. Douglas MacArthur was a hero; Joe McCarthy was a patriot. This is crucial to understand what this means for consciousness.

Let us connect this to the present. I do not believe that most of the people who voted for Trump are bad people. Maybe they have bad ideas or false ideas, but I was in the same situation. I thought that the Soviet Union started the Cold War and was threatening the United States with a nuclear attack. I do not think I was a bad person when I believed that. I had bad ideas, that is for sure. One thing I try to do in the book is to show how somebody who has the worst false beliefs about historical reality, the nature of the United States, and so forth, can be changed by experience and hard facts, can go on a personal “crash course.” And the most radicalizing experience for me was the Air Force and flying in the Strategic Air Command (SAC) as a navigator and squadron intelligence officer.

DS: We struggle with the choice of histories available to us. For example, we learned that the Soviet Union had put nuclear arms in Cuba as an act of open aggression, but it was a response to the United States putting nuclear warheads in Turkey, right?

BF: Right—the missiles in Turkey were the same distance from Moscow as the missiles in Cuba were from Washington. The United States still bases nuclear weapons near Russia’s borders.

This is not ancient history. When did U.S. aggression against Russia begin? We participated in invading Russia—along with twelve nations, including Japan, the United Kingdom, and France—from 1918 through 1920. We refused to recognize the USSR until 1933. At the end of the Second World War, the United States was the most powerful nation on the planet, and the Soviet Union had lost thirty million people and was lying in ruins from the Nazi invasion. And we were supposed to believe the Soviet Union was somehow a threat to the United States—a military threat, an ideological threat, and a master of a “fifth column” prepared to help the Soviet Union overthrow our government. How could we believe something that was so preposterous?

Being in intelligence with SAC, I got to see the documents that proved that the Soviets had no means to attack the United States. And this was as late as 1957–58. In the Second World War, we kids were supposed to admire the Soviets, those heroic people who did the most by far in defeating Nazi Germany and its allies. And then in the twinkling of an eye, by 1947–58, we were living in fear of this horrible red octopus that was trying to take over the entire world.

DS: Chapter eight, “Burning Illusions,” is about politics, corporate war profiteering, and organizing against it. You were active in trying to stop United Technology Center from producing napalm.

BF: To understand reality, you have to try to change it. For many people, this great awakening came as we launched the movement against napalm. Mass action began in Redwood City, a suburban city fronting on San Francisco Bay. United Technology got a contract to build a napalm plant on the city’s baylands. We found a statute saying that building anything on the city’s baylands was subject to public approval/disapproval, so we started a legal petition to vote on whether this contract should be allowed. What was soon revealed was the role of the corporate media, the courts, and big money.

When we started this movement, hardly anybody knew what napalm was. When we knocked on doors to talk to people about napalm, one woman responded that she did not use napalm, she used Tide. That was where consciousness was. The local press was editorializing about why people should not be allowed to vote on war and the related issues. This was eye-opening.

If people understood the actual history rather than the lies that we are fed, we would put a stop to the Forever War. Overwhelmingly, across the political spectrum, we do not want to be at war; we want to live in peace. We want to have our tremendous productive and creative abilities used for education, for health care, the environment, and infrastructure. Instead, we spend trillions of dollars on war-making and war preparations. Who is for that? Who wants it?

Crash Course ends with this thought: We cannot understand what the United States is becoming today without comprehending how our nation could have simultaneously produced both as shameful an abomination as the Vietnam War and as admirable an achievement as the decades-long movement that helped defeat it. When we figure that out, maybe we will find our way out of the Forever War.

DS: You have done a lot to help us figure that out. One way we produce these “abominations” is through the fantasy of superweapons. In War Stars: The Superweapon and the U.S. Imagination, you show how this fantasy is specific to the United States.

BF: War Stars is about superweapons in the U.S. imagination, from Robert Fulton’s ultimate weapons in the eighteenth century all the way through the centuries to Star Wars movies and the space weapons of Washington’s “Star War” fantasies of the twentieth and twenty-first centuries. The films, set “a long time ago” and allowing us to live in a make-believe “galaxy far away,” coexisted with a colossal project to create superweapons that build an invulnerable future United States. The book features many U.S. stars of war, such as Billy Mitchell, Thomas Edison, Harry Truman as he launched what he believed was the ultimate weapon like the ones he had read about, and Ronald Reagan as both the Hollywood star firing a superweapon in a movie and the president trying to create a real one. Hovering above all the other meanings is the literal meaning: thermonuclear weapons are small stars, powered by the same power as our star, the Sun. Each warhead on our warplanes, submarines, and rockets, is thus an actual War Star.

DS: It might seem unbelievable that someone was trying to solicit funding for a submarine at the time of the U.S. and French Revolutions. Tell us a bit about Fulton and the origins of this “imaginary.”

BF: Fulton built the basic modern war submarine with periscope and oxygen from compressed air—able to lurk, fully submerged, for six hours. He touted this vessel as an ultimate defensive weapon that would end war and bring global free trade and prosperity. He then went to build other superweapons with similar aims. Fulton fused the ideology of emerging industrial capitalism, with its faith in “progress,” with weapons technology to bring the glorious future. His vision and technological prowess would have many avatars in the next three centuries.

DS: Already in this first chapter you present all the arguments that will be made for the instruments of war. Do you want to detail these?

BF: From the genocidal war against Indigenous peoples and the Mexican War, through the Spanish-American War, the First and Second World Wars, the Cold War, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, the Iraq War, the Afghanistan War, and the Forever War, U.S. culture trumpets its moral superiority, manifest in the potency of U.S. weapons. Ironically, only the Civil War, the first modern war, resists belief in national moral rectitude, except for those of us who recognize that it was waged over slavery. Until very recently, our culture resolved the conundrum by erecting statues and naming highways and military bases that honored the leaders of both sides as national heroes. The Vietnam War is a revealing case. The Missing in Action/Prisoner of War flag magically transforms the United States into the victim of the Vietnamese in this grotesquely immoral war.

DS: It is not so much the history of war that you are detailing, but the cultural production of that U.S. imaginary in its literature, and it often centers on the extermination of an “alien” people.

BF: Beginning in 1880, a new literary genre flooded into U.S. culture: novels and short stories imagining future U.S. wars. I devote a chapter to this genre because it is so revealing and so influential on U.S. thought and behavior. In this very popular fiction, an emerging faith in U.S. technological genius was wedded to the older faith in the country’s messianic destiny, engendering a belief in “made-in-America” superweapons and ecstatic visions of our nation defeating evil empires, waging wars to end all wars, and making the world safe for democracy. One star of the literature was a lone, inventive genius. Thomas Edison soon showed up, modeling and promoting himself as this star in the flesh. Many of the works were outrageously racist; a few advocated wiping out all Chinese or Black people. The final words of Frank Stockton’s 1889 novel The Great War Syndicate are: “all the nations of the world began to teach English in their schools, and the Spirit of Civilization raised her head with a confident smile.”

Beginning in 1908, several works were proposing atomic and beam weapons. Truman read the literature and was influenced by it.

DS: Victory through Air Power centers the book of the same name—and the dreams of Billy Mitchell, regarded as the father of the U.S. Air Force, are essential here. What are Mitchell’s main “accomplishments”?

BF: Billy Mitchell, a genius in media manipulation, was the main figure in the U.S. love affair with air power. In 1920, his bombers proved they could sink any warship. In 1922, he conferred several times with Italian fascist theorist Guilio Douhet and became an apostle. Douhet’s strategy was terror from the air; it was based on the Italian terror bombing of Libya in 1911 and the UK terror bombing of Iraq in 1922. Douhet explained his theory in a series of treatises compiled in “The Command of the Air,” the blueprint for what is known as “strategic bombing,” the main U.S. air strategy in the Second World War. In Douhet’s words, the goal is “spreading terror and panic”; therefore “it is much more important” to destroy “a bakery” than “to strafe or bomb a trench.” The main targets are “warehouses, factories, stores, food supplies, and population centers.” He envisioned “panic-stricken people” fleeing burning cities “to escape this terror from the air.”

Like Douhet, Mitchell believed air power alone could win modern wars. He used the fleet of bombers under his command to stage mock attacks on U.S. cities and then publicized images of these cities in ruins. He published articles in the popular press labeling Japan as “an ideal target of air operations” and claiming the U.S. bombers “would burn the cities” of Japan “to the ground in short order,” which they did.

Now we are disgusted by media accounts of Russia bombing civilians in Ukraine. But in the Second World War, and in Korea and Vietnam, this was our norm. Let us not forget Hiroshima and Nagasaki.

DS: You make a point with Truman that it is the war imaginary fostered in youth that is carried through life. Truman was fulfilling a role in that imaginary.

BF: War Stars is, among other things, an attempt to get people to understand the relations among U.S. weapons, wars, and culture. The obvious problem in this attempt lies in the location of U.S. culture. Where does a society’s culture exist? We can look at cultural products, which had to be imagined before they assumed material existence; we can infer something about that imagination. But in the final analysis, imagination and the culture itself both exist inside the minds of the people who populate the society. So, what is most bizarre, most dangerous, most grotesque, most evil, most special, and most irrational in a society’s cultural imagination is almost bound to seem normal, usual, attractive, moral, and rational to most people of that society.

For example, if the leader of another country had arranged the building of the first atomic superweapons and then ordered that one be dropped on Chicago (or Boston) and another be dropped on Los Angeles (or Atlanta)—at rush hour to maximize casualties—although our government had already offered to surrender, what would most people in the United States call this leader?

Which brings us to Truman. As I demonstrate at length in War Stars, Truman knew the USSR was about to enter the war against Japan and “Fini Japs when that comes about,” he wrote. He hardened the terms of surrender and sped up the dates of the atomic bombing to prevent Japan from surrendering before the bombs were dropped. Was he evil or insane? He was, in fact, behaving like a fairly typical U.S. man of the era, a product of his culture. He was behaving like presidents he hard read about in future war fiction. In Roy Norton’s The Vanishing Fleets, which entered millions of U.S. homes in the Associated Sunday Magazines in 1907, Japan launches a sneak attack, and the president spends vast sums to build the ultimate superweapon, which merges radioactivity with air power. He then decides he must use this “most deadly machine ever conceived,” thereby ending war for all time. In 1910, Truman clipped lines from Alfred, Lord Tennyson’s poem “Locksley Hall” prophesying that “ghastly” weapons dropped from airships would still “the war drum” and bring about “the Federation of the world.” On the way to Potsdam, Truman pulled the clipping from his wallet and recited those lines to a reporter.

DS: Can you talk a bit about Theodore Sturgeon’s short story, “Thunder and Roses,” and the idea of vengeance—if one side annihilates the other with hydrogen bombs, why would it make sense to “assure” the destruction of the “other side”? (Franklin collects this classic story by Sturgeon, along with eleven others, in the anthology Countdown to Midnight: Twelve Great Stories about Nuclear War [1984].)

BF: Yes, indeed! “Thunder and Roses” is the greatest antidote to the insane logic of the aptly named Mutual Assured Destruction (MAD) policy, under which we still live. Published in 1947, when only the United States had atomic weapons and nobody had thermonuclear weapons, “Thunder and Roses” gets more and more relevant as we give more and more decision-making to computerized machines. The United States is attacked by atomic missiles launched by two nations, not named in the story. Everyone in the country is dead except for a few hundred, all dying from radiation. All over the country there are secret sites, each capable of launching enough missiles to wipe out both attackers, as well as any other remaining humans. The protagonist discovers one of these sites. The fallout from the attack is killing many people in the two nations that destroyed us. Should he launch the missiles which would end human existence? This is a question that Daniel Ellsberg explores in his essential 2017 book, The Doomsday Machine.

Ellsberg points out that if either Russia or the United States launches what he labels, accurately, its doomsday machine, it would likely trigger a nuclear winter that would make our planet unfit for humans. No other nuclear-armed nation has such an insane arsenal; each—so far anyhow—limits its nukes to deterrence, not Armageddon. Ellsberg, like Sturgeon, forces readers to confront the insanity of our MAD posture. Ellsberg goes on in his book to warn of the current U.S. emphasis on counterforce, or first-strike strategies, which only increase the likelihood of a global thermonuclear exchange and total world destruction or omnicide. Dr. Strangelove, that great 1964 film, took the MAD notion further, postulating a nation that had a doomsday weapon that would launch automatically if the nation were attacked with nuclear weapons. According to Ellsberg, we are now close to such a doomsday machine situation. Or perhaps we are already there, thanks to our space-based computers.

DS: Your book The Most Important Fish in the Sea has been remarkably influential. But how does a book about a fish most people have never heard of relate to your other work?

BF: The subtitle of this book is Menhaden and America. It is about the United States as much as it is about menhaden, just like Moby Dick is about much more than just whales. Menhaden, in fact, play amazing roles in the country’s economic, political, cultural, and environmental history. Menhaden, in fact, have been more central than whales in U.S. history.

Remember, my first book, and lots of writing since then, was about Melville. The saltwater environment has been a part of my life and thought, since I started fishing as a kid. Until 1999, I thought of menhaden as just great bait for catching fish. Then I had my first encounter with a menhaden boat and its spotter plane. This set me forth on an astonishing research quest.

DS: Mentioning Melville should bring Moby Dick to mind for readers and your assertion that menhaden have been more central than whales in U.S. history. Combined, this prompts two questions: how important were whales in this history and when were they important; and how do menhaden eclipse their importance?

BF: The Industrial Revolution craved lubricants and nighttime illumination. The response was the massacre and butchery of the world’s whales, whose bodies provided oils that greased the machines and lit the nights in the industrial nations. The United States pioneered building whale ships that were industrial slaughterhouses and true floating factories that converted whales into barrels of whale oil.

As whales were killed off, menhaden oil began to take the place of whale oil, especially during the Civil War and after. The first modern oil well in the United States appeared in 1859, and in the late 1860s, petroleum joined menhaden in satisfying the industrial craving for oil.

DS: Are menhaden’s various names instructive somehow?

BF: Native peoples who planted menhaden with their crops named them, in different languages, “fertilizer.” The Dutch thought, mistakenly, that they were European fish known to them as “marsbanker.” Growing up in Brooklyn—another Dutch word—I always called them “bunker,” a corruption of the Dutch.

DS: Why do you start the story of the most important fish in the sea by quoting Captain John Smith, Roger Williams, William Bradford, and “Squanto”? Why does this history matter?

BF: Menhaden have played huge roles in U.S. history, including its natural, social, economic, political, and cultural history. And nobody was aware of this!

Captain Smith was a sharp-eyed observer with an inquiring mind that serves as a reliable guide to modern readers. Bradford, in contrast, misreads almost everything he sees in the new world, which he calls “a hideous and desolate wilderness, full of wild beasts and wild men.” He and the rest of the pilgrims got a royal charter to set up a fishing colony, but they knew nothing about fishing and brought no fishing gear with them. Hence, half of them starved to death in the first winter. Enter the man they called “Squanto,” who, like other native people, had a copious knowledge of the natural world.

DS: You note that no one seemed to be able to actually differentiate menhaden from other fish—in particular, herring—and then ask your own questions: Why does it matter? Does the difference make a difference?

BF: Menhaden can do something that neither you nor I can do. They can digest cellulose. Cows can digest cellulose because their stomachs have four chambers and they chew the cud. Rabbits and rats eat their own poop. Eating cellulose is one reason menhaden are so important.

The Europeans had never seen any menhaden. They were familiar with the other members of the herring family. This raises a crucial question: Why are menhaden not present in Europe and yet so abundant in the United States, but only on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts?

Fly over the Atlantic coast. What do you see? Flat land. Bays, marshes, swamps, and river after river. The highest natural point on the Atlantic seaboard is Mount Mitchill in New Jersey, at an elevation of 266 feet above sea level. In fact, it is the highest coastal peak between southern Maine and the Yucatan Peninsula of Mexico. On the Atlantic coast, a mind-blowing amount of vegetable matter has been pouring into the ocean for eons. On the Gulf Coast, it is the Mississippi River, with all its tributaries, that has been carrying out the same mission.

This vegetable matter transforms into phytoplankton and zooplankton, which feed on the phytoplankton. Sometime in the geological past this led to the evolution of menhaden, a creature designed to feed on phytoplankton, zooplankton, and detritus. The limitless vegetable matter feeding the menhaden allowed their population to become almost limitless, which in turn allowed their predators to become almost limitless. All this happened long before humans arrived on this continent. So that was the first historic role of this little fish.

DS: You really do a wonderful job of painting the oceanic view of life and pointing out the misnomer that Earth is. I love how dull or inactive life seems in human terms, compared with that oceanic view of teeming abundance, and menhaden is a central component of this. But your book is pointing to the way this very essential fish has been massively diminished by humans—another feature of the Anthropocene and industrial capitalist production. How is it possible to diminish billions upon billions of fish?

BF: Menhaden swim in densely packed schools. The purse seine was invented to catch the whole school. Several boats surround the school, drop the seine, and close the bottom like a purse. It works. It is deadly.

DS: I was hoping to hear more about Moby Dick, Bruce, and you did not disappoint. What is a sperm whale doing in a book about menhaden—a fish that, compared to the whale, “is as a fly to an ox”?

BF: Sperm whales and menhaden, alas, can be butchered and turned into fortunes.

DS: It is interesting to think about Romanticism here, or the romance of the quest, because in many ways the romance of the quest might have turned to the romance of a “pristine” nature. As you point out, by the time Melville’s contemporary, Henry David Thoreau, writes about nature much of it is already a lament for massive losses. Is there a distinction between the “romance” or transcendental idea of nature and the ecological idea?

BF: Well, Moby Dick, among many other things, is a great work of the Romantic imagination. The transcendental idea of nature is certainly part of that vision. But you will be disappointed if you look for the ecological idea in any of its pages. And you will not find it in Thoreau’s pages either. As I document in The Most Important Fish in the Sea, the ecological idea—at least in the United States—emerged most dramatically in the changing concepts of predator-prey relations in the battles over menhaden.

DS: Something else that is hard to grasp is the sheer size of this industry, or rather the size of the catch. Help us understand how vast the population menhaden was, and is no longer.

BF: Although Maine was the epicenter of the post-Civil War menhaden industry, it was just the northern boundary of the menhaden’s range. They filled the waters of the entire Atlantic coast. In their seasonal migration, their schools formed a solid line, like a rush-hour traffic jam, from Maine to Cape Cod, two miles wide. Hundreds of steamships slaughtered the schools. By the early 1880s, menhaden were vanishing from the northern range. Food fish, deprived of their diet, also began to vanish. Commercial fishermen in Maine revolted and burned down two menhaden factories. States as far south as New Jersey proposed laws to ban the menhaden reduction industry. By 2021, every Atlantic state, with the exception of Virginia, had outlawed the industry in state waters. All that’s left to be “reduced” to profits for one corporation—a foreign corporation—are Virginia’s portion of the Chesapeake Bay, the Atlantic beyond the three-mile limit of state waters, and most of the Gulf of Mexico.

DS: If Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring made clear the interconnectedness of ecological systems, why wasn’t overfishing immediately seen to be as harmful and to have the same kind of cascading effects? Tell us how saving the rockfish, or striped bass, also created unforeseen harm in the absence of menhaden.

BF: U.S. regulation of fishing has, from day one onward, assumed each species of fish lives in a separate tank, with all the food it needs. It is oblivious to the ecological complexities of the saltwater worlds.

The wonderful campaign to rescue striped bass succeeded in restoring this marvelous fish to health. But meanwhile, menhaden were being hunted with no regard to their role as food for the most desired predators. This was most destructive in the Chesapeake Bay, the main nursery for striped bass on the Atlantic coast. Deprived of food, the striped bass in the bay fell victim to starvation and a wasting disease.

As part of my research for the book, I fished for striped bass in the bay. The fish that other people on the boat caught were small and covered with sores. I was fishing with a lure that looked like a small menhaden. I caught a thirty-four-inch striped bass, which thrilled me. But when I looked at the fish, I was shocked. It was all head, bone, and skin. I had never seen such a wasted and pathetic fish.

DS: It seems insane that one foreign corporation somehow holds the fate of much of the health of our coastal waters in its hands. Is it possible to say briefly how this came to pass?

BF: Once upon a time, there were over one hundred companies looting menhaden from the Atlantic and Gulf coasts and turning them into very profitable industrial products. By 1997, the entire industry had reduced to one significant company, which renamed itself Omega Protein. Why this name? Because it hoped to depend on fish pills, its highest margin product, and a U.S. grant to build a fish pills factory. Facing the factory on the opposite side of Cockrell’s Creek were the rotting hulls of Omega’s former competitors—but then research proved that the fish pill offered no health benefits.

In desperation, Omega sold itself in 2017 to Cooke, Inc., a giant international conglomerate that runs fish farms in North America, Europe, and Chile. But it is illegal for a foreign company to fish in U.S. waters. So, Omega sold all fishing operations, including all its vessels, to a dummy company it called Ocean Harvesting, actually run by itself. Thus, a foreign company is now taking our keystone fish from U.S. waters to feed its fish farms on three continents, and it takes nine pounds of menhaden to produce one pound of salmon filet.

Here is the most grotesque irony: because commercial fishing has stripped most wild food fish from the world’s seas, we are now dependent on farmed fish being fed the natural food of wild fish on two U.S. coasts.

DS: We are talking in 2022, fifteen years after you wrote the book. Has the situation for menhaden and the ecosystem improved?

BF: In 2002, New Jersey banned the reduction industry from its waters, so I ended the book by declaring an experiment: “Stop the reduction industry in a major menhaden nursery and determine what happens next.” The early results seemed almost miraculous, as hordes of striped bass, bluefish, and other prized predators returned to such newly restored major menhaden nurseries as Raritan Bay and Narragansett Bay. That was just the beginning.

On July 10, 2013, six years after the book was published, I was on the party boat the Sea Hawk, which had sailed fifteen miles from Perth Amboy to the mouth of Raritan Bay, where it joins lower New York Harbor, to drift for fluke. I was fishing near the bow. Suddenly, about eighty yards in front of the boat, an enormous gaping mouth emerged. Dozens of menhaden were flinging themselves out of that cavernous orifice, which rose higher than the boat, followed by the body of the humpback whale, hurling upward like a launching rocket. The whale performed three more of these spectacular lunges before ending our thrilling show. My next fishing trip was on July 17, same boat, same place, almost the same show. I learned from the deckhands that these shows were becoming routine. I realized why all those whales kept crisscrossing New York Harbor in the seventeenth century.

Back when this book came out in 2007, five whale sightings were recorded on average each year in the New York Bight. Now the official count in each year is about three hundred, and they are feeding on menhaden. There are now whales and dolphins at Keyport—right where my encounter with a menhaden spotter plane launched this book—something I could not have imagined in my wildest dreams.

What made this possible? A mass movement, populated mainly by saltwater anglers. A key event was the 2012 meeting of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. The Commission approved a 20 percent reduction from recent catches. And it finally recognized “the ecosystem services provided by Atlantic menhaden.” The last edition of the book includes the miracles.

The fight against the reduction industry will go on for years. What would happen if the Chesapeake, by far the greatest menhaden nursery, were liberated from the industry’s annual massacres? And before it is too late, will we recognize that stripping menhaden out of the marine environment to be transformed into corporate profits is as insane as it would be to remove bees from the terrestrial environment to be transformed into corporate profits?

2022, Volume 74, Number 04 (September 2022)
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