The Atlantic menhaden has a blue, bluish-green or bluish-brown body. It grows to 14 to 18 inches in length. Its sides, fins and belly are silvery, often with a yellowish sheen. A dark, round spot on its shoulder is followed by smaller spots arranged in somewhat horizontal rows. It has a projecting lower jaw and a deeply forked tail fin.


The menhaden is a filter-feeder that feeds by swimming rapidly to capture water in its open mouth, then filtering out plankton in the water.


Menhaden are one of the most important food sources for larger predators, including bluefish, weakfish, striped bass, sharks, mackerels, and fish-eating seabirds and mammals.

Reproduction and Life Cycle

Spawning occurs over the mid-Atlantic continental shelf in spring and autumn. Eggs hatch at sea. Larvae spend about two months there before drifting into the Bay and other estuaries. Larvae eventually move into brackish waters, where they grow rapidly throughout the summer. Menhaden can live 10 to 12 years.

Did You Know?

  • The Bay is an important nursery area for juvenile menhaden because of its rich supply of plankton.
  • Menhaden are so oily that they are nearly inedible for humans.
  • The Wampanoag people called the fish “munnawhatteaug,” and used the fish to fertilize their corn fields.
  • A large crustacean parasite is often found in menhaden mouths. This is why the fish are also called bugfish or bugmouth.
  • Although some people use it as bait, most menhaden caught in the Bay are processed for fish oil and livestock feed.

Sources and Additional Information