Atlantic menhaden form an important link in the Chesapeake Bay food web. The small fish form large schools and are harvested commercially for bait and for an industry that uses them to produce fishmeal and fish oil. Menhaden populations along the Atlantic coast appear to be experiencing overfishing, and scientists have raised concern about low regional abundance in the Bay. To protect this keystone species, fisheries managers have placed a cap on the amount of menhaden that can be harvested from the Bay.
Why are menhaden important?
Atlantic menhaden are critical to the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem, filtering pollutants out of the water and forming an important link in the food web. Menhaden also support one of the oldest commercial fisheries on the Atlantic coast.
Removing pollutants from the water
Menhaden are important players in water quality. Like oysters, menhaden are filter feeders, capable of cleaning up to four gallons of water each minute as they graze on algae and other planktonic organisms. This action helps remove excess nutrients from the water.
A key link in the food web
Menhaden form an important link between the lower and upper levels of the food web. Menhaden are a critical source of food for larger fish species that support commercial and recreational fisheries, including bluefish, weakfish and striped bass. Fish-eating birds—including ospreys and bald eagles—also rely on menhaden as a source of food.
Economically important fisheries
Menhaden support one of the oldest commercial fisheries on the Atlantic coast. While the fish is too small and oily to eat, menhaden are harvested for other purposes, including:
- fishmeal for fertilizer and animal feed,
- fish oil for foods, supplements, cosmetics and other products, and
- bait for commercial and recreational fisheries.
The reduction industry, which harvests the fish to produce fishmeal and fish oil, began in New England in the 1800s. Today, just one reduction plant remains in operation on the Atlantic coast: Omega Protein in Reedville, Virginia.
How are menhaden harvested?
Large schools of Atlantic menhaden are caught with purse seines, or nets stretched between two boats. The boats travel in a circle around the menhaden in order to trap the fish. The net is “pursed,” or closed, and the fish are vacuumed out of the water and into refrigerated containers. Small airplanes are used to find the schools.
Menhaden are also caught with pound nets, which are strung between stakes in the water. This harvest method supports the bait fishery in the Potomac River and the Maryland portion of the Bay.
Most menhaden landings come from the Virginia portion of the Chesapeake Bay. The rest are caught in coastal waters from New England to North Carolina. According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), total commercial landings averaged 464 million pounds between 2008 and 2012. About 77 percent were harvested by the reduction fishery, and 23 percent were harvested to use as bait.
Is the menhaden population healthy?
While Chesapeake Bay-specific estimates of the Atlantic menhaden population are not currently produced, estimates are made for the coastal stock. According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), Atlantic menhaden are neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing.
How would a decline in menhaden affect the Chesapeake Bay?
The ecological functions of Atlantic menhaden as a filter feeder and a food source could be lost if populations decline. Low menhaden abundance, for instance, could shrink the food supply available for bluefish, weakfish, striped bass and other predators.
According to the Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation, the striped bass demand for menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay is exceeding the supply. While striped bass have adapted their diets to survive, some suffer from poor nutrition, which could be linked to slower growth rates and a higher susceptibility to disease.
How are menhaden being protected?
Atlantic menhaden are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). This organization tracks and regulates the number of fish that are caught each year, as defined in its Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden.
In December 2012, the ASMFC voted to establish a “total allowable catch” of 170,800 metric tons (about 377 million pounds) of menhaden. This cap was to begin in 2013 and last until the next benchmark stock assessment, scheduled for 2014. The cap represented a 20 percent reduction from the average landings of 2009-2011, and was allocated on a state by state basis; it lowered the Chesapeake Bay’s reduction fishery harvest by 20 percent. In 2016, the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board approved a total allowable catch for the 2017 fishing season of 200,000 metric tons (about 441 million pounds) of menhaden: a 6.45 percent increase from the 2016 cap. It will also be allocated on a state by state basis.
In addition to the cap, research is being conducted to determine menhaden abundance in the Bay; develop estimates of predation; evaluate the rate of exchange of menhaden between the Bay and coastal systems; and determine recruitment to the Bay.
For Chesapeake Bay restoration to be a success, we all must do our part. Our everyday actions can have a big impact on the Bay. By making simple changes in our lives, each one of us can take part in restoring the Bay and its rivers for future generations to enjoy.
To protect menhaden in the Bay watershed, practice proper catch-and-release fishing techniques to avoid harming fish and follow fishing regulations to protect menhaden stocks.