Atlantic Menhaden


Commercial fishing boats pull up a net chock-full of menhaden.

Photo Credit: John Surrick/CBF Staff

The most important fish in the Bay

UPDATE: April 28, 2020—the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) updated a harvest cap on menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay that will bring Virginia into compliance with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) menhaden management plan adopted in 2017. The VMRC’s action avoids a shutdown of the menhaden fishery due to noncompliance with the ASMFC. (Read CBF's statement)

Atlantic menhaden, Brevoortia tyrannus, are small, nutrient-packed fish that are central to the Chesapeake Bay's food chain and support one of the largest commercial fisheries on the Atlantic coast. As a result of their environmental and economic importance, management of the menhaden fishery is a political flashpoint across the region.

Why are menhaden (also called bunker or pogy) important in the Chesapeake Bay?

Menhaden have been called the "most important fish in the sea." In the Bay, they create a vital connection between the bottom and top of the food chain. They eat tiny plants and animals, called plankton, by filtering them from the water. In turn, menhaden are a rich food source for many predator fish—including rockfish (striped bass), bluefish, and weakfish—as well as ospreys, bald eagles, dolphins, and whales.

Rockfish, in particular, historically relied on menhaden for a large portion of their diet. Researchers have raised concerns that a lack of menhaden could make rockfish more vulnerable to disease.

Why should I care about menhaden?

If you enjoy feeling the tug of a big rockfish on the end of your line (and savoring the taste of it at dinner) or watching osprey snatch a silvery fish from the water, you have menhaden to thank! These small fish are the unsung heroes of the Chesapeake Bay, providing a rich food source for many of our favorite critters.

What are the threats facing menhaden?

The Bay is one of the most important nurseries for menhaden, helping to sustain the population along the Atlantic coast. Menhaden eggs hatch in the open ocean before drifting on currents into the Bay, where juvenile fish live and grow for their first year of life. But long-running scientific surveys show the number of young menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay dropped dramatically in the early 1990s and remains low.

Chart shows data from 1959 to 2019, with highest concentration (geometric mean between 2 and 16+) between 1974 and 1991.

This graph represents the average number of juvenile menhaden available (“abundance”), which has a direct impact for predators like striped bass and osprey. Unfortunately, the number of young menhaden produced in the Bay each year has been poor for the last 20 years.

Durell, E.Q., and Weedon, C. 2019. Striped Bass Seine Survey Juvenile Index Web Page. Maryland Department of Natural Resources, Fisheries Service

At the same time, almost three-quarters of all menhaden caught on the East Coast are harvested by the Omega Protein Corporation—a Canadian-owned company that fishes largely in or near the mouth of the Bay. Omega operates the sole remaining menhaden reduction facility on the U.S. East Coast in Reedville, Virginia. The plant reduces (cooks and grinds up) the fish for a variety of uses, such as nutritional supplements, food additives, and feed for livestock and fish farms.

Menhaden by the Numbers

70% The amount of an adult rockfish's diet historically filled by menhaden.
8% The amount of an adult rockfish's diet currently filled by menhaden.
The rockfish population in the Chesapeake Bay is showing signs of malnourishment
and increasing mortality.
75% The amount of an osprey nestling's diet filled by menhaden in the 1980s.
28% The amount of an osprey nestling's diet filled by menhaden today.
Though the number of nests throughout the Bay region has improved, nestling
mortality is as high as it was in the DDT era.
65% The annual removal of adult menhaden from East Coast waters.
2,500 The number of jobs supported by menhaden-dependent species in Virginia alone.
$236 In millions, the total amount fishing for menhaden-dependent species contributes to
Virginia's economy.
8% The current Atlantic menhaden population compared against historical levels.

Why is there a harvest cap for menhaden in the Bay?

Menhaden migrate along the Atlantic coast from Florida to Maine. An interstate governing body—the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC)—manages the fishery for the 15 states that share the coastline.

Over the past two decades, fishery managers have raised concerns that the concentration of fishing effort in Bay waters could disrupt the Bay's food chain, harming populations of rockfish and other predator species. As a precaution, the ASMFC first set a cap for Omega's industrial menhaden harvest in the Bay in 2006. In 2017, the ASMFC voted to update the cap to reflect more recent menhaden harvest levels in the Bay.

In blatant disregard for the fishery management process, Omega knowingly exceeded the cap in 2019. The violation resulted in a unanimous ASMFC vote referring Virginia to the U.S. Department of Commerce for noncompliance with interstate fishery rules. The Secretary of Commerce decided to uphold the ASMFC decision and will implement a moratorium on Virginia's menahden harvest if the fishery is not in compliance by June 17, 2020.

How can better management protect menhaden and the Bay?

Management decisions and catch limits currently rely on stock assessments of the menhaden population, independent of other species. In other words, they account for demand from the fishing industry, but do not account for demand from rockfish, osprey, and other animals that rely on menhaden for food.

That could soon change. The ASMFC is developing benchmarks, known as ecological reference points, that would allow managers to account for menhaden's role in the food chain and set catch limits accordingly. CBF has been a strong proponent of this process and will continue to advocate for an ecosystem-based approach to menhaden management.

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