AskDefine | Define menhaden

Dictionary Definition

menhaden n : shad-like North American marine fishes used for fish meal and oil and fertilizer [syn: Brevoortia tyrannis]

User Contributed Dictionary




  1. Any of several species of fish in the genera Brevoortia and Ethmidium, used for fish meal, fish oil, fertilizer, and bait.

Derived terms

Extensive Definition

Menhaden, also known as mossbunker and pogy, are fish of the genera Brevoortia and Ethmidium, two genera of marine fish in the family Clupeidae.


thumb|right|240px|Menhaden B. tyrannus from the Chesapeake Bay. Gulf menhaden 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.
The Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) is a small, oily fleshed baitfish 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.


Gulf menhaden range from the Yucatan peninsula to Tampa Bay, Florida, finescale menhaden from the Yucatan to Louisiana, yellowfin menhaden from Louisiana 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 (


Menhaden are classified as 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 and oysters help filter out excess nutrients that are contributing to the decreasing water quality in the Chesapeake Bay. While in the juvenile stage, the menhaden’s diet is based primarily on zooplankton (microscopic organisms). When mature, they also consume a larger form of plankton known as 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. The only company that harvests menhaden in the United States is the Omega Protein Corporation, which is based out of Houston, Texas. 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'. See an article on their critical importance in the global ecosystem and food web at


  • Fote, T. P. (1997, May). Interactions of Striped Bass, Bluefish and Forage Species. Jersey Coast Anglers Association .
  • Kirkley, J. E. (2006). The Economic Importance and Value of Menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay Region. Gloucester Point, VA.
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