Menhaden, also known as mossbunker and pogy, are fish of the genera Brevoortia and Ethmidium, two genera of marine fish in the family Clupeidae.
and Atlantic menhaden
are characterized by a series of smaller spots behind the main, Humeral spot and larger scales than Yellowfin menhaden
and Finescale menhaden
. In addition, Yellowfin menhaden
tail rays are a bright yellow in contrast to those of the Atlantic menhaden
, which are grayish. Menhaden range in weight up to one pound or more. Recent taxonomic work using DNA comparisons have organized the North American menhadens into large-scaled (Gulf and Atlantic menhaden) and small-scaled (Finescale and Yellowfin menhaden) designations.
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)
Gulf menhaden range from the Yucatan peninsula to Tampa Bay, Florida
, finescale menhaden
from the Yucatan to Louisiana, yellowfin menhaden
to North Carolina
. The Atlantic menhaden
ranges from Jupiter Inlet, Florida, to Nova Scotia
. The various species of menhaden occur anywhere from estuarine waters outwards to the continental shelf
Atlantic menhaden have the ability to spawn year round in the inshore waters off the Atlantic coast, with the highest concentration of activity located just off of North Carolina in the late fall. The eggs hatch in the open ocean and the larvae are transported to sheltered estuaries via ocean currents. The young spend their first year of life developing in these estuaries before returning to the more open oceanic environment. At this early stage in life, the menhaden are commonly known as “peanut bunker”. The Atlantic menhaden usually do not become sexually mature until the end of their second year of life, after which they reproduce until death. A young, sexually mature female can produce roughly 38,000 eggs, while a fully mature female can produce upwards of 362,000 (www.menhaden.org).
Menhaden are classified as omnivorous filter feeders, meaning that they feed by straining suspended matter and food particles from water. They travel in large, slow moving, and tightly packed schools with mouths open. Filter feeders such as menhaden typically take into their open mouths "materials in the same proportions as they occur in ambient waters" (GSMFC 2002). Menhaden diet is based primarily on zooplankton (microscopic organisms); although, since they are omnivorous, they do take in a small portion of phytoplankton (microscopic plants).
Commercial importance and overfishing
Menhaden are not used for human consumption. They die quickly, and spoil rapidly if not immediately gutted and iced.
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'.
- Franklin, H. Bruce (2007). The most important fish in the sea. Island Press.
- Pauly, Daniel (2007). "Fisheries: Tales of a small, but crucial, fish". Science 318 (5851): 750–751. Retrieved on 2007-11-03.
- (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2008, from Menhaden Matter: http://www.menhadenmatter.org/links.html
- Atlantic Menhaden Harvest. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2008, from Chesapeake Bay Program: http://www.chesapeakebay.net/atlanticmenhadenmanagement.aspx?menuitem=15378
- Fote, T. P. (1997, May). Interactions of Striped Bass, Bluefish and Forage Species. Jersey Coast Anglers Association .
- Geartype Fact Sheets: Purse Seines . (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2008, from Food and Agricultural Organization of the United Nations: http://www.fao.org/fishery/geartype/249
- Kirkley, J. E. (2006). The Economic Importance and Value of Menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay Region. Gloucester Point, VA.
- Management: Conflict and Competition. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2008, from Menhaden Resource Council: http://www.menhaden.org/management_conflict.htm
- Maryland Fish Facts: Atlantic Menhaden. (2007, April 5). Retrieved April 20, 2008, from Maryland Department of Natural Resources: http://www.dnr.state.md.us/fisheries/fishfacts/menhaden.asp
- Mycobacteriosis: Frequently Asked Questions. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2008, from Virginia Institute of Marine Science: http://www.vims.edu/myco/FAQ.html
- Plankton. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2008, from Enchanted Learning: http://www.enchantedlearning.com/subjects/invertebrates/plankton/Planktonprintout.shtml
- Save the Stripers: Menhaden Update. (n.d.). Retrieved April 20, 2008, from National Coalition for Marine Conservation: http://www.savethefish.org/action_items_striped_bass_EAN8.htm
- Southwick Associates, Inc. (2006). Menhaden Math The Economic Impact of Atlantic Menhaden on Virginia’s Recreationa land Commercial Fisheries. Retrieved April 20, 2008, from National Coalition for Marine Conservation: http://www.savethefish.org/PDF_files/Menhaden_Math_report.pdf