History & Background

Introduction

The Atlantic menhaden is a small, oily, bony schooling fish high in omega-3 fatty acids. Menhaden are silvery in color, with a distinct black shoulder spot behind their gill opening. They are found in estuarine and coastal waters from northern Florida to Nova Scotia, and serve as prey for many fish, sea birds, and marine mammals. They have become an important source of forage for popular species of fish such as striped bass, bluefish and weakfish, to name a few. Menhaden themselves feed by straining plankton from the water, thus providing a crucial link between primary production and higher organisms.

Menhaden are also known as: mossbunker, bunker, pogie, “the most important fish in the sea,” “the backbone of the marine food web”

History & Uses

The first use of menhaden was in the 1600s in New England by Native Americans, who used the fish as fertilizer for crops. Menhaden oil then became a major component in our country’s industrial revolution as a lubricant and fuel, and was used in various consumer products such as soap in the early 20th century.

After World War II, menhaden became a key ingredient in animal feed, first for poultry and swine, and later for household pets. During the aquaculture boom of the 1990s, menhaden became a major component in fish feed. Finally, around the turn of the 21st century, industries began to use menhaden as a food additive and health supplement, due to its high omega-3 content.

Today, the Atlantic menhaden commercial fishery consists of both a reduction and a bait fishery.

  • The reduction fishery first began in New England during the early 1800s and spread south after the Civil War, expanding greatly with the invention of the purse seine. Throughout the past decade, landing     and fishing efforts have gone up and down, with one shore-side reduction plant remaining today in Reedville, VA. The plant processes menhaden into fishmeal and fish oil.
  • The bait fishery for menhaden has become increasingly important in recent years, especially in Virginia and New Jersey. Catches from the menhaden purse seine bait fishery are used by sport fisherman as chum and as cut or live bait for sportfishes, such as bluefish, striped bass, weakfish, king mackerel, red drum, shark, and tuna.

To learn more about the history of this little fish, check out H. Bruce Franklin’s acclaimed book The Most Important Fish in the Sea. Click here to find out more! [link to Franklin book page that will include link to purchase book on Amazon]

Why Menhaden are So Important

Menhaden have been called “the most important fish in the sea” because of the critical role they play in the marine ecosystem as prey for other fish and wildlife.

Menhaden provide a vital and unique link between primary production and higher organisms. Adult and juvenile menhaden feed by straining plankton—tiny floating plants and animals—from the water. Menhaden then convert plankton into a usable form of energy for animals higher in the food web.

Based on diet studies, many valuable and highly prized fish species—such as striped bass, bluefish and weakfish—as well as several marine mammals, sea turtles, ospreys and loons depend on menhaden as a food source.

Because each species occupies a crucial niche in the ecosystem, excessive removal of prey species, such as menhaden, disrupts an ecosystem’s natural balance and sustainability.