The Plight of the Menhaden


Atlantic menhaden stocks have declined 86% in the last three decades, due to sustained industrial overfishing. The commercial menhaden fishery is made up of two sectors, a reduction fishery that comprises approximately 80 percent of landings, and a bait fishery that harvests the remaining 20 percent.

Reduction Fishing

The modern reduction fishery grinds up menhaden into fish meal and oil for use in pet foods, livestock and aquaculture feeds, industrial products, protein meal and solubles, and dietary supplements.

Just one company is responsible for the menhaden reduction industry on the Atlantic Coast: Omega Protein, Inc. Omega Protein removes menhaden at a rate that makes it nearly impossible for the fish population to sustain itself.

Omega Protein targets older, larger fish because their yield is far greater. But as menhaden age their fecundity, or capacity to reproduce, increases dramatically. Right now, the annual removal of adult fish is 65% or higher, making it unlikely that an adult menhaden will reproduce once, if at all.

In 2010 alone, Omega Protein harvested 404 million pounds—or about 160,000 metric tons—of menhaden in Atlantic coastal waters. The company’s annual harvest is worth more than $168 million. Omega Protein sells its fishmeal product internationally, for aquaculture markets. The explosive growth in aquaculture has fueled the demand for menhaden from Omega Protein. Revenues for 2011 are projected at $218 million.

Bait Fishing

The remaining 20 percent of the total Atlantic menhaden catch is attributed to the New England bait fishery, which provides menhaden for the huge lobster fishery that spans several states.

Over the course of the last decade, the Atlantic herring fishery in New England has been depleted, forcing lobstermen to seek another source of bait. Traditionally, small vessels have been used to collect menhaden for the recreational fishing, and commercial crab and lobster markets. These small vessels are now being accompanied by larger carrier vessels (see picture above), to optimize and increase daily catches to unprecedented levels.

As a result of the overexploitation of menhaden by the reduction fishery, and increased use of menhaden by the bait industry, fishermen along the Atlantic coast are witnessing localized depletion of menhaden and the gamefish that depend on them.