Abstract

The tiny fish called menhaden is perfectly designed for its role in the oceanic system of life. This remarkably resilient fish was created for unique purposes. However, through neglect and mismanagement, the menhaden has been overfished by man and is in danger. The dominion mandate given by God to humanity to care, preserve, and harvest from the physical creation has been abused in relation to the menhaden.


Introduction

Then God blessed them, and God said unto them, Be fruitful and multiply, fill the earth and subdue it: have dominion over the fish of the sea, over the birds of the air, and over every living thing that moves on the earth (Genesis 1:28 NKJV).1

The exhortation by the Lord to Adam and Eve to have “dominion” over their world has never been rescinded. These instructions were repeated after the Genesis Flood to Noah and his family (Genesis 9:2), indicating that, as the post-Flood world was repopulated, the instructions for humanity to have dominion over the animal world were still in place. This dominion was not to be despotic, but responsible. The dominion over God’s creation means that humanity prevails over it, dominates it, administrates it, or rules over it.2 Humanity was never meant to venerate or worship nature, but rather to preserve, protect, and harvest the bounty provided by the Lord through His physical creation. One example of the harvest provided for humanity from creation is the fish called menhaden.

Menhaden have rightly been called “the most important fish in the Atlantic and Gulf [of Mexico] waters.”3 This is because menhaden are the vacuum cleaners of most of the United States’ coastline, filtering up to four gallons of water a minute to extract phytoplankton (algae and other tiny plants). The menhaden travel in schools of tens of millions of fish. When they move through an area they serve as a filter, a water purification system critical to the survival of other fish. Other filter feeders in the ocean, such as baleen whales, eat zooplankton (tiny animals). The menhaden serves as the one main oceanic herbivore, a function it was perfectly designed to accomplish.

We are encouraged to observe the physical creation which points us to the Creator. This includes the menhaden. For example, we are asked to consider the ways of a lowly ant that provides for itself in all seasons (Proverbs 6:6–8). We are encouraged to observe the aeronautical genius of an eagle’s flight, and the skill by which a serpent can quickly move upon a rock (Proverbs 30:19). Job exhorts us, “But now ask the beasts, and they will teach you; and the birds of the air, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you: and the fish of the sea will explain to you . . . . That the hand of the Lord has done this, in whose hand is the life of every living thing” (Job 12:7–10).

As a case study of having dominion over the created world, consider fish. Solomon spoke many poems and proverbs which contained references to fish (1 Kings 4:32–34). Job stated that the fishes of the sea would declare the power and wisdom of God (Job 12:8). Psalm 8:6-8 states, “You have made him [humanity] to have dominion over the works of your hands; You have put all things under his feet, all sheep and oxen – Even the beasts of the field, the birds of the air, and the fish of the sea that pass through the paths of the sea.

The Endangered Menhaden

When a Christian seeks to care for the physical creation, he is simply following the example of the Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus taught us that as lowly a creature as a common sparrow was specifically cared for by God (Luke 12:6). Jesus also mentioned birds of the air and lilies of the field, how these common and overlooked features of everyday life are cared for, understood, and appreciated by God (Matthew 6:26–30). In the prolific writings of King Solomon, he frequently wrote about the wisdom of God in the physical creation.

The dominion mandate to preserve the created world is sometimes ignored. The menhaden is a fish that faces extinction from mankind’s overfishing. Menhaden are routinely eaten by many other fish, as well as sea mammals and birds. But since the menhaden reproduces so rapidly and abundantly, there has never been concern about the extinction of the fish until menhaden were the target of American and other commercial fishermen in the late 1800s. People do not typically directly eat menhaden, as they are oily, taste gamey, are full of small bones, and have a terrible odor. However, aggressive predator fish such as bluefish, tuna, shark, or striped bass gorge themselves on menhaden, often eating tons of menhaden in a gluttonous feeding frenzy.  Commercial fishermen catch menhaden by the hundreds of tons and use them for fertilizer, animal food, and lubricants. Because of overfishing and poor resource management, the menhaden may soon become extinct.4

The menhaden play a critical role in the ocean’s ecosystem, and are a main source of food for many fish. As they filter phytoplankton, they allow sunlight to reach depths where aquatic plants can prosper, which increases oxygen levels, allowing other fish and shellfish to survive. If these phytoplankton algae are not filtered away, the algae choke other life and create massive aquatic dead zones smothered in festering and toxic waters depleted of oxygen. In addition, the proportionally low numbers of menhaden that are killed by feeding schools of fish or other predators serve as a critical food source for bottom feeding fish and crustaceans. This fish is perfectly designed to perform many functions for humanity.5

In order to have dominion over God’s creation, we must understand the design and natural laws of the Creator. We are encouraged in the Bible to investigate these things. We are told to “consider” the ways of the ant (Proverbs 6:6–8); to “look” at the birds (Matthew 6:26); to behold the “wonderful” design in created animals (Proverbs 30:18–19); and to “ask” about the marvel of created beings (Job 12:7–8). We are challenged to study the bear, lion, raven, goat, deer, donkey, oxen, ostrich, stork, horse, hawk, and the gigantic beasts called leviathan and behemoth (Job 38–41). As we study these animals we see glimpses of their Creator. This is also true for the tiny menhaden fish.

The menhaden is a fish that used to be seen from Maine to Florida to Texas. Yet there has not been a sighting of a school of adult menhaden north of Massachusetts since 1993.6 As a boy fishing off the breakwater in Gloucester, Massachusetts, it was common to see schools of menhaden flash before my eyes, millions of the small fish dashing and darting in perfect precision as a silver streak in the harbor. On another occasion I was fishing in a small aluminum boat outside Gloucester Harbor, when a school of menhaden flashed beneath us. The school of millions of menhaden clanked against the aluminum hull of the boat, making a loud pounding noise and vibration that was both awesome and terrifying. Now there are no more menhaden in Gloucester.

Historically, the number of menhaden outnumbered and outweighed all the other Atlantic fish combined. Because the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico coasts of America produce vast amounts of phytoplankton, because menhaden have little competition for this food source, and because of their phenomenal fecundity (reproduction rates), menhaden became unimaginably abundant.7 Many oceans of the world overflowed with menhaden, a sign of a healthy ecosystem.

Since the menhaden has few natural defenses, it is easy prey for predator fish, yet a school of menhaden is virtually immune to natural predators, as the school has no one head which, when killed, destroys the body. The millions of menhaden in a healthy school can easily survive a feeding frenzy from predators, with the surviving menhaden reproducing quickly to replenish the school. The menhaden has a specific, vital, and intended role in the oceanic cycle of life. H. Bruce Franklin understates the point when he writes that menhaden have a specific place in nature and have a unique mission.8

The Design of Menhaden

The person with an interest in fish, whether a school-trained ichthyologist or a casual fisherman or outdoorsman, has the privilege of observing and marveling at the beauty of fish. In speaking of God as Creator, the Bible states, “He has made everything beautiful in its time” (Ecclesiastes 3:11). The Hebrew word for “beautiful” means that which is pleasant, orderly, appropriate, or attractive. The expression “in its time” in Hebrew gives the idea of timeless, the appropriate moment, everlasting, now and continually.9 In other words, what God created is visually pleasing, well-functioning, and has enduring value and beauty. This is certainly true when we consider the design, functions, intelligence, adaptability, and physical beauty in the splendid world of fresh- and saltwater fish, specifically the menhaden.

At first glance, the menhaden is a physically unimpressive fish. A mature menhaden can be anywhere from three inches to twelve inches long (although I have never seen one longer than six inches except in an aquarium). The menhaden has a blunt head, large lower jaw, a gaping toothless mouth, and a pudgy body. The massive head comprises about one-third of the length of the fish, and about one-half the weight. The large head is perfectly designed to accommodate the unusually complex gill structure. This gill structure uniquely serves two functions. First, it allows the fish to get oxygen from water pouring through their mouths and flowing out through their gills. This is normal for fish. Second, and what is unique to menhaden, is the way the gills have a net-like thicket of bony gill rakers beneath their operculum that extract tiny particles of phytoplankton and detritus from the water that continually swirls in their mouths and out their gills.10

menhaden

A photograph of a typical Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico menhaden. Source: By Joel boumje (Own work) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons. See mybay.umd.edu/images/brevoortia_patronus-web.jpg for an illustration depicting the main external body parts of a menhaden.

The coordination between the dorsal fin, caudal fin, anal fin, pelvic fin, and pectoral fins are nothing short of spectacular, allowing the fish to travel in schools of millions, yet able to turn in an instant and avoid conflicts with the millions of other menhaden in the school. Their coloration is designed to be less visible by predator birds from above; the sides of the fish while in motion blend in with moving water; and the view of a menhaden from beneath blends in with sunlight, obscuring the view of a predator from below.

The eyes of a menhaden appear foggy or glazed, but their eyesight is perfectly suited for living in huge schools of fish. They have another sensory system, the lateral line that runs from the gill plate where there is a black spot, almost to the tail. This lateral line is extremely sensitive to disturbances in the water, helping fish to travel in quickly darting schools and assisting the menhaden in avoiding predators. The lateral line is a superbly designed sensory system. The caudal fin is deeply forked, allowing the fish to smoothly travel in crowded schools with millions of other fish. The mouth is perfectly designed, created to be open while the fish swims, gathering phytoplankton in its ongoing function of cleaning water.11 It is a brilliantly designed fish.

The Importance of Menhaden

After the worldwide Genesis Flood, the Lord spoke to Noah, telling him and his family that they, as representatives of the human race, were to rule the world, to be fruitful and multiply, and to rule over the resources of the world, namely the birds of the air, the beasts of the earth, the fish of the sea, and the herbs of the ground (Genesis 9:2).

No doubt fish were an important primary source of food after the flood for Noah and his family, as the animals on the ark could not be immediately eaten since they were needed to replenish the earth, and it would take time for crops to grow. But fish were everywhere present in the post-Flood world. In streams that were forming, lakes that were developing, and in ponds that were receding, Noah and his sons could have walked to the nearest body of water and would have had a variety of fish to select from. This required Noah and his family to plan, coordinate, organize, and evaluate how they would provide food for themselves from the physical creation. This was a restating of the dominion mandate given to Adam and Eve in Genesis 1:28. Whether or not Noah and his family had dealings, however, with menhaden after the Flood is unknowable.

Some have questioned that, if there really was a worldwide Genesis Flood, how could the fish have survived? A global cataclysm as described in the Genesis Flood would have greatly polluted the oceans, causing havoc with bacteria levels, salinity, temperature, and turbidity. The truth is that most fish did not survive the Genesis Flood, as evidenced by the fact that over 95% of all fossils are marine creatures.12 We do not know the resiliency of fish before the Flood. We do not know their pre-Flood tolerance for water sediment, salt, fluctuating temperatures, or turbulence. But we do know that many fish today, such as catfish, carp, and various fish of the bass family, can survive and thrive in brackish water. Further, we know that contemporary fish such as shad, salmon, various trout, sturgeon, and smelt, are able to live in both freshwater and saltwater. Anadromous fish (moving from freshwater to saltwater to spawn) and catadromous fish (moving from saltwater to freshwater to spawn) are common today.13 Therefore, while most fish did not survive the Genesis Flood, many did survive and adapted, as fish adapt and survive today, such as the menhaden.

For the Christian, the care, protection, utilization, and concern of the physical world reflects the attitude of the Lord. For example, Proverbs 12:10 states that “A righteous man regards the life of his animal . . . .” In Deuteronomy 22:6–7, the Lord promises blessing upon those who care for wild birds in trouble. Harvesting bird eggs was allowed, but harming the mother bird was forbidden so she could continue to reproduce as God intended. Jesus thought nothing of catching and eating fish as part of a healthy and readily available diet (Luke 5:9; 9:13–17; 24:41–43). A man raising animals is told to “Be diligent to know the state of thy flocks, and attend to your herds” (Proverbs 27:23). These verses show us that God is concerned for His physical creation, even the important but tiny menhaden.

The foundational book for the study of menhaden is the 600 page text by George Brown Goode, A History of the Menhaden. Published in 1880, all subsequent research on this fish uses this book as a foundation point.14 It is an organized, well-illustrated book with remarkable detail and is broad in its research. Writing in the later nineteenth century, at a time when Darwinian evolution was sweeping over science, Goode could not easily relate the perfectly designed menhaden to random chance in evolution. In the menhaden, Goode saw design, purpose, intention, and believed the fish had a specific mission. At that time, the menhaden appeared to be “God’s boundless gift to America.”15

The recent book by H. Bruce Franklin, The Most Important Fish in the Sea, makes an eloquent case for the genius and fascination related to the lowly menhaden. Other recent books have addressed the role of fish in the founding of the United States;16 in the sustainment of American maritime communities,17 and in the future of the fragile contemporary U.S. fisheries industry.18 As our maritime resources face endangerment, more awareness is being given to the need for careful resource management of the fisheries. Menhaden is a vitally important fish in the ocean’s ecosystem.

The importance of menhaden has virtually been forgotten. The menhaden has almost been wiped out by commercial fisheries. Many menhaden fishermen have gone bankrupt or switched to fishing for other species. Only one major menhaden fishing company remains in the United States, catching thousands of tons of menhaden in the few areas that still retain large menhaden populations, namely the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf of Mexico. The U.S. government spends taxpayer money to sustain the menhaden fisheries. There is little reason to do this, since menhaden-related products, such as oils, animal feed, and fertilizer, have been replaced with much cheaper petroleum and soybean alternatives. But the role that menhaden play in the ocean’s food chain is irreplaceable.4

Fish have been a tangible example of God’s provision to humanity since they were created several thousand years ago on Day Five of the Creation Week. Not only are fish extremely nutritious for humans to eat, they are beautiful and graceful to behold. One secular journalist marveled at the beauty, design, and complexity of fish, in this particular case the tuna. Paul Greenburg, a journalist for the New York Times, marveled at the tuna’s ability to regulate its body temperature, to retract its fins for increased speed, and to swim at incredible speed while utilizing an undersized vibrating tail. Greenburg rightly assesses that such a fish is “a machine from God.”19 H. Bruce Franklin marvels at the visual beauty of a colorful school of menhaden glittering and darting through the water.20 It is easy to recall that when God created, He made “all things beautiful in its time,” including the important but humble menhaden (Ecclesiastes 3:11).

Tiny, oily menhaden are often called the ocean’s most important fish by ichthyologists, oceanographers, and environmentalists, too.21 Bill Goldsborough, fisheries director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, stated “It is not much of an exaggeration to call it [menhaden] the most important fish in the sea.”22 Menhaden stocks are in steep decline. Estimates project that about fifty years ago there were about 90 billion menhaden one year old or less. Twenty-five years ago there were 70 billion. Now only about 18 billion menhaden remain one year old or less. At a recent meeting in Boston, Massachusetts, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission overwhelmingly voted to reduce the annual menhaden harvest from 183,000 metric tons to 174,000 metric tons.23 This may not be enough.

Applications to the Dominion Mandate

Mankind has made great strides in many areas of having dominion and subduing the earth, such as the replenishing of numerous natural resources. But no one could intelligently state, for example, that humanity has subdued the fish of the sea and has dominion over all sea creatures. Even with rapid advances in technology, mankind is still dwarfed by the immense majesty and power of God as seen through His physical creation.24

Humanity is commanded by God to exercise dominion over the animal kingdom. At a minimum, this means people can hunt animals, catch fish, and harvest crops from the earth. Implied is that humans would care for and protect the physical world created by God. This protection of the resources provided by the Lord includes such simple things as caring for menhaden. Insuring that menhaden are not overfished is one way a creationist can fulfill the Lord’s dominion mandate to rule over the world, subdue it, and maintain it for future generations to enjoy. In so doing, the creation scientist can be a witness for the Creator.

Creation scientists and informed Christians can participate in the dominion mandate to preserve, protect, and properly harvest the bounty provided by God through His physical creation. Professional employment exists in national parks, conservation societies, research facilities, academia, and in many professional fields such as biology, forestry, oceanography, agriculture, botany, and others. Volunteer positions exist in local watershed councils, beautification committees, land use planning boards, museum, zoo, and aquarium societies, etc. Thankfully, a number of agencies in the United States are seeking to study, preserve, and facilitate the expansion of menhaden populations, including the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission.25

Conclusion

When fish were created on the fifth day of the Creation Week, God said, “Let the waters abound with an abundance of living creatures . . . So God created great sea creatures and every living thing that moves, with which the waters abounded… And God blessed them, saying, Be fruitful and multiply, and fill the waters of the seas . . . ” (Genesis 1:20–22). Thus the bodies of water throughout the world were soon populated with multiple billions of fish with thousands of various shapes, sizes, colors, and functions. Worldwide, the fossil record supports the idea that fish appeared suddenly in the fossil record. There are no reliable fossils that show a transition from one animal to a fish, or a fish to another animal. In the fossil record, fish are fish and are not in some hypothetical evolutionary stage of transition26

The fish called menhaden is a wonder of the Lord. This fish serves as a key link in the oceanic cycle of life. It serves as a food source to predators, it cleans our oceans, and it feeds bottom feeding fish and crustaceans. It reproduces so rapidly that its extinction was unthinkable until the commercial fisheries nearly wiped out menhaden from the oceans. Menhaden, lowly though they be, are a critical piece in the design of God in creating and sustaining life in the ocean depths. Indeed, H. Bruce Franklin admits that the intelligence and skill in the menhaden cause him to use words such as “designed” and that the menhaden apparently has a “mission” from some outside designer.27 There is not one piece of evidence that this fish randomly evolved.

The biblical Psalmist wondered in amazement at the glory of the Lord in His design and sustainment of the physical creation, making mention of the fish that thrive in the oceans: “O LORD, how manifold are your works! In wisdom you have made them all. The earth is full of your possessions – This great and wide sea, in which are innumerable teeming things, living things both small and great . . . ” (Psalm 104:24–25) and “Let heaven and earth praise him, the seas and everything that moves in them.” (Psalm 69:34).

Kenneth E. Lawson is an avid fisherman who holds earned doctorate degrees in Sacred Theology and in United States History. He currently serves in the U.S. Army as a Chaplain with the rank of Colonel.

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Footnotes

  1. All Bible quotes are from the New King James Version, 1997. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers. Back
  2. The Hebrew word for dominion is used eight times in the Old Testament. In every case it refers to leadership, authority, rule, domination, or prevailing upon another. See Vine, W. E. 1985. Vine’s Expository Dictionary of Biblical Words, pp. 181. Nashville, Tennessee: Thomas Nelson Publishers. Back
  3. Meet Menhaden – Before this Ecologically Critical Fish Vanishes Back
  4. Meet Menhaden – Before this Ecologically Critical Fish Vanishes Back (1) Back (2)
  5. Franklin, H. Bruce. 2007. The Most Important Fish in the Sea, pp. 7-8. Washington, DC: Shearwater Books. Menhaden serve humanity through its use as fertilizer, bait for larger fish, and animal food. Oil from the menhaden is used for cosmetics, linoleum, soap, margarine, insecticide, and paint. Back
  6. Franklin, p. 13. Back
  7. Franklin, pp. 27, 34. Back
  8. Franklin, p. 10. Back
  9. Strong, James. 1890. The Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible. Pfeiffer, Charles F. 1962. The Wycliffe Bible Commentary, p. 588. Chicago: Moody Press. Jamieson, Robert. 1961. Commentary Practical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, p. 478. Grand Rapids, Michigan: Zondervan Publishing. Back
  10. Franklin, pp. 39–40. Back
  11. Franklin, pp. 40–41. Back
  12. Morris, John D. 2010. How Could Fish Survive Noah’s Flood? Back
  13. Cumming, Kenneth B. 2010. How Could Fish Survive the Genesis Flood? Back
  14. Goode, George B. 1880. A History of Menhaden. New York: Orange and Judd. On page 60, Goode criticizes a fellow scientist for stating that the menhaden is an unintelligent fish due to the gloss or fog over the eyes of the fish. To Goode, the menhaden is a remarkably intelligent fish, with the glossy eyes having a specific function. See also Franklin, pp. 120–124, 156. Back
  15. Franklin, p. 123. Back
  16. McPhee, John. 2002. The Founding Fish. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux Publishers. The author’s argument is that the fish called shad was critical in the survival of the first European settlements in America. Back
  17. Kurlansky, Mark. 1998. Cod: A Biography of the Fish that Changed the World. New York: Penguin Books. Back
  18. Greenberg, Paul. 2010. Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food. New York: Penguin Books. The four fish studied by Greenberg were salmon, tuna, bass, and cod. Back
  19. Greenburg, Paul. 2010. Four Fish: The Future of the Last Wild Food, pp. 199-200. New York: Penguin Books. Back
  20. Franklin, p. 56. Back
  21. Fears, Darryl. November 9, 2011. Menhaden Harvest Limit Sharply Cut by Fisheries Commission. The Washington Post. Back
  22. Fears, p. 2. Back
  23. Fears, pp. 2–3. Back
  24. Morris, Henry. March 2003. God’s Dominion Mandate and the Nations Today. Back to Genesis, pp. a–b. Dallas, Texas: Institute for Creation Research. Back
  25. VanderKooy, Steven J. Gulf Menhaden. Back
  26. In 1996, evolutionists praised the fossil of an extinct lobe-finned fish called Tiktaalik. This was supposed to be the missing link, the transitional form between fish with fins and land legs. Evolutionists promptly displayed the fossil in fanciful recreations as the missing link. A few years later Tiktaalik was rejected by evolutionists and quickly removed from museum displays and textbooks. The University of Chicago was on the forefront of promoting Tiktaalik as the missing link. See their web site devoted to this subject at Tiktaalik roseae. For creation scientist refutations of Tiktaalik as a missing link fossil, see Menton, David. 2006. Gone Fishin’ for a Missing Link? (A Preliminary Response) A more recent summary of Tiktaalik as a failed missing link is found in Sherwin, Frank. 2010. Banner Fossil for Evolution is Demoted. Back
  27. Franklin, pp. 60, 63, 70. Back