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atlantic menhaden fish map

Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus)

Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

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Menhaden are in the herring family (Clupeidae). They have been called the most important fish in North America due to their historical superabundance in coastal waters of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico, their importance as food for many species of marine fish, birds and mammals, and their role as plankton feeders vacuuming up vast quantities of algae and filtering coastal waters.1

Atlantic menhaden are found in estuarine and coastal waters from northern Florida to Nova Scotia, and serve as prey (food) for many fish, sea birds and marine mammals. Whales and porpoises devour them in large numbers. Sharks are often seen following schools of menhaden. Pollock, cod, silver hake, bluefish, weakfish, tuna and swordfish all consume great numbers.

The scientific consensus statement of the Atlantic Menhaden Workshop Report and Proceedings (ASMFC 2004) underscored the ecological importance of menhaden in coastal waters of the eastern seaboard:

  • Atlantic menhaden play a unique role transforming primary productivity directly into fish biomass.
  • Menhaden are important prey for large predators. Historically menhaden were the dominant prey species in places such as Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina.
  • Menhaden continue to serve an important ecological role although that role has diminished in modern times as menhaden abundance has been reduced.
  • Menhaden may be the last major abundant inshore clupeid.2

Many believe that the ecological value of the species far outweighs its economic value to the reduction fishery, and some in Congress have called for an outright ban of the reduction fishery on the East Coast.

Menhaden supported one of the largest industrial fisheries in North America through much of the 20th century. Today the combined Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Ocean menhaden reduction fishery remains the second largest fishery by weight in the United States. Considered unfit for human food consumption due to its small size and high oil content, the modern purse seine reduction fishery grinds up over a billion pounds of menhaden a year into fish meal and oil for use as an ingredient in pet foods, livestock and aquaculture feeds, and various industrial products. However, the Atlantic menhaden stock is greatly diminished by decades of industrial reduction fishing and faces an uncertain future.

Menhaden caught in the purse seine reduction fishery comprise the largest fishery on the East Coast. Much smaller quantities of menhaden are caught and used as bait in commercial blue crab, lobster, crayfish, and eel fisheries. Menhaden are also used by recreational anglers as chum and as cut or live bait for sportfish such as striped bass, bluefish, king mackerel, sharks, and tunas.

The Atlantic menhaden fishery is managed by interstate agreement though the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), which was established in 1942 by the 15 Atlantic coast states. Amendment 1 to the Interstate Fishery Management Plan (FMP) for Atlantic Menhaden was approved and adopted by the Commission in 2001. The plan specifies a new overfishing definition based on target mortality rates and stock biomass levels, and implements a framework for future management measures.

According to the most recent stock assessments, the stock is not considered overfished on a coastwide basis. However, the geographic contraction of the reduction fishery into core areas of the menhaden�s range is extremely troubling and suggests that many substocks within the coastwide population may have been overfished in the past. In October 2006, managers agreed to cap the level of catch in Chesapeake Bay based on the average of reported landings from 2001-2005 (109,020 mt), as a way of reducing the likelihood of depleting the localized population in the face of uncertainty as to the true status of Bay menhaden.

ASMFC has also developed a preliminary Multispecies Virtual Population Assessment model (MSVPA). The goal is to assess effects of predation on menhaden and provide management advice on the predator-prey interactions affecting menhaden so that predator needs can be addressed explicitly when managers set annual fishery quotas. Currently those ecosystem needs are not accounted for, however.

1 H. Bruce Franklin. Net Losses: Declaring War on the Menhaden. Mother Jones, March/April 2006.
2 Atlantic Menhaden Workshop Report and Proceedings, Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, October 12-14, 2004, Alexandria, VA.

Copyright � Marine Fish Conservation Network. All Rights Reserved 2007

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