Any of several species of Atlantic coastal fishes (genus Brevoortia of the herring family), used for oil, fish meal (mainly for animal feed), and fertilizer. Menhaden have a deep body, sharp-edged belly, large head, and tooth-edged scales. Adults are about 15 in. (38 cm) long and weigh 1 lb (0.5 kg) or less. Dense schools of menhaden range from Canada to South America. When feeding, they swim with mouth agape and gill openings widespread to strain out plankton.
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The Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) is a small, oily fleshed fish that plays a major role in the marine ecosystem on the east coast of the United States. They go by many different names, some of the most popular being bunker, pogies, mossbacks, bugmouths, alewifes, and fat-backs. The maximum size for the Atlantic menhaden is usually about 15 inches in length. The average size of menhaden is smaller in the southern portion of their range, and largest at the northern portion. They are bright silver in color, and have a number of black spots extending horizontally from the gill plate to the tail, with the largest spot found directly behind the gill plate. They are quite flat and soft fleshed, with a deeply forked tail. The edges of the menhaden’s fins and tail often have a yellowish hue. At sea, schools of Atlantic menhaden may contain millions of members. (offspring)
However, menhaden are the primary source of fishmeal, used as food for poultry and for pen-raised fish, such as salmon. Atlantic menhaden are what is considered an ecologically critical species. They are an incredibly important link between plankton and upper level predators. Because of their filter feeding abilities, “menhaden consume and redistribute a significant amount of energy within and between Chesapeake Bay and other estuaries, and the coastal ocean.” Because of this role that they play, and their abundance, menhaden are an invaluable prey species for many predatory fish such as striped bass, bluefish, mackerel, flounder, tuna, drum and sharks. They are also a very important food source for many birds including: egrets, ospreys, seagulls, northern gannets, pelicans, and herons.
According to James Kirkley of the Virginia Institute of Marine Sciences (VIMS), there are two established commercial fisheries for menhaden. The first is known as a reduction fishery. According to the Omega Protein Corporation, this fishery is responsible for the extraction of the omega-3 oils for human consumption, and using the rest for aquaculture, swine and other livestock feeds . The second is known as a bait fishery, which harvests menhaden for the use of both commercial and recreational fishermen. The commercial fishermen, especially crabbers in the Chesapeake Bay area, use menhaden to bait their traps. The recreational fisherman use ground menhaden chum as a fish attractant, and whole fish as bait. There are only two companies that harvests menhaden in the United States, including the Omega Protein Corporation, which is based out of Houston, Texas, and Daybrook Fisheries, based out of Empire, Louisiana. They have operations based in Reedville, Virginia; Abbeville, Louisiana; Cameron, Louisiana; and Moss Point, Mississippi. Atlantic menhaden are harvested using purse seines. According to Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations: “A purse seine is made of a long wall of netting framed with floatline and leadline (usually, of equal or longer length than the former) and having purse rings hanging from the lower edge of the gear, through which runs a purse line made from steel wire or rope which allow the pursing of the net.”
Although the overall population of menhaden is scientifically proven to be healthy, there is increasing concern, especially from recreational fisherman and conservationists, that the Chesapeake Bay’s menhaden population is declining significantly. The Chesapeake Bay’s major menhaden fishery is located in the southern (Virginia) portion. According to the Chesapeake Bay Program, “more pounds of menhaden are landed each year than any other fish in the Bay. In 2006, 376 million pounds of menhaden were caught in Maryland and Virginia waters (both Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean), valued at approximately $22.8 million.” Currently, the only two states that allow commercial harvesting of Atlantic menhaden are Virginia and North Carolina, with Virginia being the major contributor.
Menhaden have been called 'the most important fish in the sea'.