The most important fish in the Atlantic is one we don’t even eat.

When I was a child I fell often and bruised easily, so my pediatrician recommended that I take fish oil capsules to compensate for what he claimed was a vitamin E deficiency. Unfortunately, my lack of coordination at the time also extended to swallowing pills; I had to bite through the red rubbery capsule to release the oil within and thus experienced the nastiest stench known to humankind. I have hated fish oil (and doctors) ever since.

It took me a long time to get over the association of fish with that horrific taste, but I finally did when I learned that properly cared for fresh fish does not have a fishy smell.

Unfortunately, I was reminded of that strong stink when Orient resident, biologist and retired science teacher John Holzapfel presented a slideshow and talk at the Peconic Landing Auditorium in Greenport this past winter, hosted by the Oysterponds Historical Society on the “Many Histories of Menhaden.”

Menhaden, the most abundant catch on the East Coast, is a bony, oily fish in the same genus as sardines and anchovies. Though it wouldn’t kill you to eat one, they are fished mostly for other purposes. (If you are going to eat menhaden or “bunkers,” as the people who eat them often call them, you need to do so when the fish is very fresh, because the flesh tends to decay quickly and the oil become rancid, according to Holzapfel.)

These little fish are important for several reasons that are linked to their place on the food chain: Just a step above plankton, algae and seaweed, they serve as filters to clear the sea of excess plant matter, while also converting those omega-3-rich sea plants to heart healthy fatty acids that are much in demand by humans these days. Of all the fish in the sea, only fish like menhaden have the ability to process those leafy greens of the sea. And fish happen to deliver a hefty dose of omega-3s.

Menhaden are also just below many of the fish we like to eat on that cycle of eat and be eaten, and when bluefish, bluefin tuna, red snapper or striped bass ingest the oily fish, they also take in those fatty acids that we in turn, with our privileged position at the top of the food chain, and our desire to live a long life without heart trouble, also like to eat.

Is the menhaden—like so many other fish—at risk of extinction?

Is it in danger of becoming the missing link in the food chain? Typically, when we worry about the sustainability of sea creatures, we consider the ones we eat. But if we eat any fish at all, it’s likely that we’re getting a bit of menhaden with our sautéed seafood. As Paul Greenberg succinctly put it in his op-ed “A Fish Oil Story,” warning about the dangers of overfishing them, in the New York Times (12/15/09), “Nearly every fish a fish eater likes to eat eats menhaden.”

This is not new information. “G. Brown Goode (author of The Menhaden, published in 1880) exaggerated only slightly when he said that people who dine on Atlantic saltwater fish are eating ‘nothing but menhaden,'” wrote H. Bruce Franklin in The Most Important Fish in the Sea. Rex Springstone, a correspondent for the Richmond Times-Dispatch, earlier this year wrote, in regard to the population of the Chesapeake Bay, “The foot-long, calorie-rich menhaden [are] the power bars of the bay. They feed the fish we do eat, from striped bass to bluefish, and animals we like to watch, including ospreys and dolphins.”

And even if you don’t eat fish, but you take fish oil supplements like the one I took when I was a kid, the ingredients used to make them are likely to have been derived from menhaden.

A historic sign of the importance of menhaden in American history can be found among the early European settlers in the New World. The Pilgrims would likely have starved if they hadn’t learned from the Native Americans how to fish—and how to use the less appetizing fish to fertilize corn crops.

There are more than 30 other names for menhaden (“pogy” (not to be confused with the more edible porgy), “bunker” and “mossbanker” to name just three). From “pauhagen” to “poghoden” and then shortened even further to “pogy,” from “munnawhatteaug” to “menhaden,” the dozens of names for this fish are mostly Anglicized and corrupted from various Native American Indian languages, depending on region. “Munnawhatteaug,” for example, translates literally to “that which manures” or “he that enriches the land.” No matter what they called it, the Native Americans believed that menhaden were more useful as a supplement to the soil than as fodder for the stomach. While the settlers ordered supplies from England, the AmericanIndians knew how to live off the land—and how to make the best uses of natural resources. Though menhaden were so prolific that it was hard not to catch them, the Europeans needed fishing lessons.

Tisquantum aka Squanto, the native American Indian brought back from England by John Smith, showed early settlers how easy it was to catch cod and striped bass and other fish.

“The colonists’ depletion of the soil was already beginning to be a problem as early as the 1630s.” Because farmers moved on to new land instead of doing crop rotation, “By the late 18th century, many of the farms in New England and Long Island were suffering from severe soil exhaustion,” wrote Franklin, which increased their need for menhaden—he that enriches the land—even more.

While many farmers were accustomed to using guano (bird shit) imported from Peru to fertilize the land, the fertilizer from menhaden increased their production way beyond expectations. However, “as soon as the chemical processes of the early 20th century were able to synthesize cheaper fertilizer, the process of menhaden as fertilizer was wiped out as an industry,” wrote Franklin. “Ironically,… ignorance of the land’s need for natural forage helped pave the way for what came next, a major industry that would strip the sea of its natural forage.”

By 1846, the industrial revolution created a demand for whale oil, which, Franklin wrote, “flowed like petroleum today into illumination, lubrication and multitude of manufactured products,” but the whaling industry, which had so dominated the economy, was gradually replaced by bunker fishing, and the production of menhaden oil was outstripping the production of whale oil.

In Greenport, whalers’ try-pots aboard whaling vessels, designed for melting down whale blubber, were used to extract the menhaden oil. According to Franklin, “By 1867, the menhaden fisher had entirely eclipsed the whale fishery in Greenport, around which clustered 20 menhaden factories processing the teeming bunkers of Peconic Bay and Gardiner’s Bay. The Long Island Railroad, which had previously been extended to Greenport in order to transport whale products, now filled its trains with menhaden products instead.”

In 1871, Scientific American reported that Sag Harbor was losing its importance as a whaling town because of the demand for menhaden oil. It was easier to trap a whole school of menhaden in a single net (purse seines) than to capture a whale—and much less dangerous.

The East End of Long Island was a hub of menhaden activity from the 1880s to the 1950s, though there was some ebb and flow in the volume of business as the population of menhaden waxed and waned. This was not the first time (nor the last) that a debate over whether the variations in the bunker population was due to overfishing or to their natural life cycle was played out in published articles and other media.

Both the North and South Forks were active in this fishy business in the 1950s, and Greenport, Shelter Island and Amagansett and points even further east were reanimated by the rush to cash in on the renewed menhaden population.

In the same waters where, just a few decades before, pirates had chased their prey (rumrunners in the 1920s and 30s), menhaden trawlers in Greenport threw out their purse seines and hauled their catch to the Promised Land Fish Factory, east of Amagansett, where the fish was processed into fish meal or fertilizer and then transported to New York City and beyond.

At the same time, the first dedicated extraction factories opened and seemed like a solution to the problem of depleted soil and imported Peruvian guano, but, according to Franklin, the fac tories were “such awful polluters that they were often forced to relocate to some desolate spot out toward the eastern tip of L.I.”

But the factories weren’t welcome out here either. The residents of Shelter Island, where one factory was located, couldn’t abide the horrid stench coming from the reduction factories.

Eventually, the need for menhaden for fertilizer was replaced by the development of chemical fertilizers. But the demand for the fish oil continues, to the point of endangering the balance of our ecosystem. Today the culprit is Houston-based subsidiary of the Zapata Corporation called Omega Protein, which capitalizes on the perceived demand for the nutrient as derived from fish.

But do we really need stinky, fishy fats packed in capsules? The answer is that there are more pleasant—even tasty—ways to ingest omega-3s. The best sources are actually plants—flax seeds and flax oil are a more sustainable way to supplement one’s diet. And some people even enjoy the flavor of flax, whether baked into bread, sprinkled whole on cereal, or ground into a nutty powder to shake onto vegetables or salads.

One concern is that menhaden are being depleted for the sake of monetary gain.

“If the menhaden is the symbol of overfishing, the Omega Protein Company has become the symbol of corporate greed and excess in the fishing community. Omega’s high-tech factory ships have been locating menhaden schools and literally vacuuming them out of the water,” states Greenpeace on their Web site.

Some industry representatives defend the practice of catching vast quantities of menhaden, viewing the fish as overly prolific and overpopulated. Others argue that the depletion of menhaden is not overfishing, but part of a natural cycle, the same kind of argument that is made about global warming.

At the very least, the story of menhaden is a cautionary tale about the interconnectedness of everything on the planet. From depleting the soil and creating a need for fertilizer, to depleting the sea of fish to fulfill the need for fertilizer; from instigating a demand for menhaden oil as whale oil became harder to obtain, to the attempt to supplement our diets with dubiously obtained omega-3s; there’s no question that humans have a drastic impact on the environment with consequences ranging from global warming to the extinction of species.

Nancy Davidson, a New York City–based writer, prefers to obtain her omega-3s from ground flax seeds.