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Save Atlantic Menhaden

The Most Important Fish in the Sea that Most People Don’t Know”

What Are Menhaden?

Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus), also locally known as bunker, moss bunker, pogy or fatback. They are schooling fish related to herring, shad, and sardines.

Life Span: Between 10 to 12 years. Adults can grow to be around 15 inches.

Menhaden are common fish in estuaries and coastal waters from northern Florida to Nova Scotia. Menhaden are small, flat-bodied, fish with deeply forked tails. They have bright silver scales, and characterized by a series of smaller dark spots behind the main, black humeral spot.

Adult and juvenile menhaden form large, near-surface schools, primarily in estuaries and nearshore ocean waters from early spring through early winter. By summer, menhaden schools stratify by size and age along the coast, with older and larger menhaden found farther north. During fall-early winter, menhaden of all sizes and ages migrate south to waters off the North Carolina Coast.

A large school of Atlantic menhaden feeding on plankton.

A large school of Atlantic menhaden feeding on plankton.

Reproduction: Atlantic menhaden can spawn year round in nearshore waters off the Atlantic coast, with the highest spawning rates near North Carolina in the late fall. Buoyant eggs hatch in the open ocean and the larvae drift to sheltered estuaries via ocean currents. 

During March and early April, adult menhaden gather and migrate northward to spawn in the spring and again in the fall, September to October. Sexual maturity begins as early as age one to just before age three, with major spawning areas from the Carolinas to New Jersey. The majority of spawning occurs primarily offshore (20-30 miles) during winter. Juveniles spend most of their first year in estuaries, migrating to the ocean in late fall. Juveniles can grow rapidly through the summer to reach sizes up to 7.2 inches by fall.


Why is Menhaden the Most Important Fish in the Sea?

Humans do not eat menhaden directly, not even in fish tacos! The fish is too oily and bony. Instead these small fish create an important link in an estuarine-marine food web. They are an important source of protein for many species, including bluefish, dolphins, eagles, humpback whales, ospreys, sharks, striped bass. dolphin fish, herons, egrets, terns, and weakfish. All these species and more depend on this fatty fish for food and survival.

Many species of coastal birds, fish and marine mammals depend on menhaden for their survival as a food source.

Many species of coastal birds, fish and marine mammals depend on menhaden for their survival as a food source.

Whales, dolphins, and other marine mammals devour them in large numbers; a variety of sharks are often seen following menhaden schools; pollock, cod, silver hake, and swordfish all depend on menhaden for nourishment in the Gulf of Maine, as do weakfish south of Cape Cod. Tuna also devour great numbers, and bluefish depend on menhaden for their survival every summer.

When menhaden populations are high, a surge of life is seen along the coast. Whales and dolphins have returned to New York Harbor in enough numbers that a company in Brooklyn can reliably trot tourists out to the ocean—within distance of Manhattan’s skyscrapers—to see them. Osprey populations and other fish eating birds do better in years when menhaden populations are high, shark populations also re-bound, and high-value recreational fish including striped bass and bluefish have plenty to eat and people have plenty to catch when menhaden populations are abundant.

Atlantic menhaden are schooling fish and are filter feeders. They feed on both phytoplankton and zooplankton.

Moreover, as stated above, Atlantic menhaden are filter feeders. They feed on algae and zooplankton, and clean the water they filter through their digestive system. Menhaden can filter huge amounts of algae, nitrogen, and plant detritus from our estuaries, and clean waters at an incredible rate. Some scientists have suggested that one adult menhaden can clean four to six gallons of water in a minute! Quite simply, menhaden help to keep our coastal waters clean. 

The Atlantic menhaden feeds by opening its mouth and allowing water to pass through its gill openings, which filter microscopic plants and small crustaceans from the water. In calm water, the snouts or tails of the menhaden can come out of the water as they feed on surface-dwelling plankton.

The author H. Bruce Franklin was absolutely correct when he named his book about menhaden, The Most Important Fish in the Sea. Menhaden make up the foundation for estuarine and marine food chains. So many sea creatures along the East Coast depend on this oily forage fish, from marine mammals to birds to sea turtles to big fish. In addition to their important role in the food chain, menhaden are filter feeders and act as natural filters for an estuarine-marine ecosystem.

All these “snaps” in the water are a large school of menhaden with tails sticking out of the water feeding on an even larger school of plankton. Picture taken in Sandy Hook Bay, NJ.

All these “snaps” in the water are a large school of menhaden with tails sticking out of the water feeding on an even larger school of plankton. Picture taken in Sandy Hook Bay, NJ.

The Problem:

Menhaden populations have plummeted 90 percent over the past 30 years.

The decline threatens to disrupt coastal and marine food webs and affect thousands of fishing, whale-watching, and bird-watching businesses that menhaden help support.

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Menhaden support one of the most commercially important fisheries along the Atlantic Coast, providing fish meal, fish oil, and bait for other fisheries. More pounds of menhaden are landed each year than any other fish in the United States.

Historically we have done a very poor job of managing this fish. Menhaden have been consistently overfished for more than a century. Populations of menhaden used to burst in coastal waters from spring through fall. In some early European accounts, large populations of menhaden were “40 miles long and two miles wide, from the surface to the sea-bed.”

In 1879, George Brown Goode, the noted Smithsonian museum administrator, historian of science, and ichthyologist, released his monumental publication, The Natural and Economical History of the American Menhaden, the first, and still one of the the most comprehensive, studies of an American fishery. In 1880, Goode wrote that we were running out of menhaden. The schools that Goode had studied, primarily north of Cape Cod, were gone. Even today, the menhaden’s range is a small fraction of what it once was. Yet, we continue to fish for them.


There are two main types of fisheries for menhaden:

The map above shows where approximately Omega Protein fishes on the East Coast for menhaden.

The map above shows where approximately Omega Protein fishes on the East Coast for menhaden.

1. Reduction" (industrial) menhaden fishing. Today, Virginia is the only state that allows "reduction" (industrial) menhaden fishing, which takes approximately 80 percent of the catch coast-wide. The oil and fish meal from the catch goes into paints, cosmetics, animal feeds, and human diet supplements. This reduction fishery removes approximately 80,000 tons of menhaden from the Virginia part of the Chesapeake Bay as well as in the Atlantic Ocean each year.

Omega Protein (NYSE: OME), a company based out of Houston, Texas, dominates the menhaden reduction industry, taking the majority of the Atlantic Menhaden catch and operating the only processing facility on the East Coast, which is located in Reedville, Virginia. They use purse seine fishing as a method to catch menhaden.

2. The commercial bait fishery has been growing since 1985 and now makes up about one quarter of the menhaden harvested along the Atlantic coast. A majority of the menhaden‐for‐bait landings are used commercially in crab, lobster, and hook‐and‐line fisheries. Recreational fishermen also catch Atlantic menhaden as bait for various game fish. Bait harvest in 2016 was estimated at 97 million pounds and represents 24% of total menhaden landings. The largest state contributors to the bait fishery are New Jersey (47% of bait landings in 2016) and Virginia (34% of bait landings in 2016). 

The Atlantic menhaden fishery is managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's (ASMFC) Atlantic Menhaden Management Board, which tracks and regulates harvest under Amendment 2 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic menhaden.


What’s Being Done?

The latest population assessment by the ASMFC (Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission) was completed in 2017. While the menhaden population is recovering, it is still a long way from being healthy and certainly a long way from fulfilling all the forage needs of whales, dolphins, ospreys, striped bass and other coastal species. 

The new assessment only shows the status of the menhaden population independent of other species and not its contribution to a food web.

In November 2017, the ASMFC approved Amendment 3 with the following actions, which will guide management of the fishery through 2019: 

  • Decreased the reduction fishery harvest cap in the Chesapeake Bay by 41.5 percent, to 51,000 metric tons, protecting important nursery habitat;

  • Increased the coastwide menhaden catch limit for 2018 by eight percent, from 200,000 metric tons to 216,000 metric tons, lower than some calls for much higher limits;

  • Prohibited quota rollovers that would otherwise allow unfilled yearly quotas to be caught the following year, potentially inflating the catch to unsustainable levels, and;

  • Rejected putting in place interim conservation measures that would have better accounted for menhaden's role in the food chain, known as ecological reference points.

Industry and conservationists debate future of the species,    Rhode Island,    2017

Industry and conservationists debate future of the species, Rhode Island, 2017

While some of these decisions mark victories for menhaden conservation. Save Coastal Wildlife and other environmental groups were disappointed that the ASMFC will not immediately adopt catch limits that would take into account menhaden's role in the coastal food chain.

The ASMFC argued that the guidelines being considered were based on other species in other locations and has decided to wait to move forward until technical work groups have finished developing ecosystem-based models specifically for menhaden. That effort is expected to be completed in 2019.  

Save Coastal Wildlife strongly believes the only way to make sure we have healthy a coastal ecosystem is by taking a look at the entire estuarine-marine ecosystem, including the menhaden fishery. What remains after many decades of industrial overfishing and mismanagement is not nearly enough to support a healthy coastal community from humpback whales to bluefish to bluefin tuna to people.

Current reduction activities of menhaden may lead to an extremely low population along the Jersey Shore, so low that it could undermine menhaden's important ecological role as a filter feeder and to serve as a major food source for other fish, marine mammals, and important coastal species.


WHAT CAN YOU DO TO HELP SAVE MENHADEN:

  1. You can write your members of Congress in Washington D.C. as well as the US EPA (United States Environmental Protection Agency) telling them to better regulate the menhaden fishery.

  2. You can avoid products with fish oils including fertilizers, dietary supplements with fish oil, and many kinds of pet foods and cosmetics that contain fish or fish oil (many brands of lipstick have been known to contain fish oils in order to give the lipstick a slippery feel on the skin).

  3. Menhaden is also processed into feed for poultry and pigs, which makes this a good time to think about your diet and how what you eat affects the environment.

A juvenile menhaden fish caught in a seine net in Sandy Hook Bay during September.

A juvenile menhaden fish caught in a seine net in Sandy Hook Bay during September.



Environmental History of Menhaden

At first glance, Atlantic menhaden do not appear as an impressive fish. The Narragansett Indians, a group of aboriginal people of the State of Rhode Island, once called them munnawhatteaug, which means “that which manures.” Menhaden were probably the fish that indigenous people who lived along the east coast (along with the original settlers of the Plymouth Colony, known simply as the Pilgrims) used to place next to their corn as fertilizer. Native Americans showed the Pilgrims how to grow corn by planting a fish with each corn plant. The Mayans, Incas and Native Americans of the southwest all used fish to grow crops to get nitrogen, potassium and phosphorus.

What makes Menhaden so good at being fertilizer?

It contains some of the highest concentrations of omega-3 fatty acids in all of nature! A key, nutritive compound of fish oil.

Throughout the 1700s and 1800, these oily and strong smelling fish were rarely eaten. Instead menhaden were used as baitfish or thrown whole on farm fields for fertilizer.

In the 1800s, the menhaden fishery came into its own when commercial fish processing plants began appearing along the east coast from northern Florida to southern Maine. The fish were cooked and pressed, the oil was used to make soap and fuel for lanterns. The solids were ground up for fertilizer and animal feed. 

By 1880, half a billion menhaden were being rendered into oil and fertilizer.

An airstrip where “spotter” plans would take off and land to locate schools of menhaden for the Belford fish factory that once existed in Belford/Port Monmouth, Middletown Township, NJ.

There were almost three times as many menhaden ships as whaling ship. A menhaden boat could produce more oil in a week than a whaling ship could during it’s entire, multi-year voyage, and it could do so close to shore and largely out of harms way.

In Delaware from the late 19th to mid 20th centuries, the shores of Lewes Beach were lined with fish factories that processed the fish and sent it out across the country. In 1953, Lewes was the largest seafood port in the United States, processing over 390 million pounds of seafood, 360 million of which were exclusively menhaden.

Locations of menhaden reduction plants in 1955 (dots) and the areas for which statistics on catch and biology were compiled.” From: Reintjes, J. W. (1969) Synopsis of Biological Data on the Atlantic Menhaden, Brevoortia tyannus. FAO Fisheries Synopsis No. 42 U. US Department of the Interior, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Commercial Fisheries – Circular 320-1969

Locations of menhaden reduction plants in 1955 (dots) and the areas for which statistics on catch and biology were compiled.” From: Reintjes, J. W. (1969) Synopsis of Biological Data on the Atlantic Menhaden, Brevoortia tyannus. FAO Fisheries Synopsis No. 42 U. US Department of the Interior, US Fish and Wildlife Service, Bureau of Commercial Fisheries – Circular 320-1969

As technology improved, airplanes became an important part of menhaden fishing all along the east coast. Planes would take off from areas near fish factories, spot fish and radio down to fishing ships below.

Former Menhaden Factory,  Beaufort NC

Former Menhaden Factory, Beaufort NC

The fishery grew and reached peak landings in 1956 at 712,100 metric tons. By the 1970s, many of the menhaden “fish factories” along the east coast began to close due to increasing competition from chemical fertilizers and dwindling populations of menhaden. For most of the history of the menhaden fishery, oil and fertilizer were the fish’s primary uses.

Today, menhaden fish oil is largely used as a nutritional supplement, aiding in heart, bone and even emotional health for humans, and as an essential ingredient in many lipsticks, paints, and pet foods.

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Further Insights About the Plight of Menhaden:

Author, H. Bruce Franklin shows how menhaden have shaped America’s national—and natural—history, and why reckless overfishing now threatens their place in both.

Author, H. Bruce Franklin shows how menhaden have shaped America’s national—and natural—history, and why reckless overfishing now threatens their place in both.