Hows The Water

11.16.11 – Menhaden

The old saying “there’s plenty more fish in the sea” is becoming less and less true these days.  The Atlantic menhaden, also known as bunker, is a silvery, highly compressed fish in the herring family. Menhaden are severely overfished.  Due to a technical error on the part of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission which regulates the fishery, they have been overfished for two of the past ten years, and perhaps for decades.   According to a spokesperson for ASFMC, the commission had been looking at the number of eggs to determine the health of the menhaden stock.   That number didn’t correlate to adult fish in the water and consequently the fishery was being managed incorrectly.

I have heard fishermen lamenting the lack of bluefish and striped bass this season.  These are larger predatory fish which prey on bunker.  If there are no bunker, there will be none of the larger fish which feed on them.  Menhaden are also valuable to the ecosystem since they are filter feeders.  They can filter from four to six gallons of water per minute.  Since menhaden swim in large schools, that can make a huge impact on water quality.  They are also a natural check to deadly red tide.  Perhaps the lack of bunker is contributing to algae blooms and dead zones (caused by low dissolved oxygen levels) in Long Island Sound and the Cheseapeake Bay.

“In looking at studies over the past few decades, we see declining amounts of menhaden in the diets of striped bass, ospreys, bluefish, and weakfish,” said Holly Binns, director of Southeast Fish Conservation at the Pew Environment Group. “Saltwater fishing, whale watching, and bird watching—which rely on species that eat menhaden—generate hundreds of millions of dollars per year on the East Coast. The new benchmarks will help sustain our coastal economies and communities.”


The Pew Environment Group led an intensive campaign to adopt new management benchmarks to increase the menhaden population to four times its current size. On November 11, the commission voted to reduce the allowed harvest by 37 per cent.   “Today’s vote is a welcome step for a fish that hasn’t caught a break since Dwight Eisenhower was president,” said Peter Baker, director of Northeast Fisheries at the Pew Environment Group. “Scientists have warned that having too few menhaden in the water could result in disastrous impacts on the fish and wildlife that eat them.” The population is currently at less than 10 percent of historic levels.

About three-quarters of the Atlantic menhaden catch comes from the Chesapeake Bay and surrounding ocean waters.  80 per cent of the Menhaden harvest is used by Omega Protein, which vacuums up schools of menhaden and grinds them up to use them as fish meal or fish oil for dietary supplements. Other uses for menhaden is for fertilizer, farm animal feed and pet food.

“More and more, we see that menhaden, herring, and other so-called forage fish—the species that the larger, better-known fish eat—are an irreplaceable link in the ocean food chain,” said Baker. “Today’s decision marks a watershed moment, where the ASMFC embraced the challenge of managing the entire ecosystem, not just one species. We look forward to working with the Commission to establish new rules that enforce these targets.”

“For most of menhaden’s history, people have been trying to figure out how to make a buck off of something that was once pretty useless, but very abundant,” says Paul Greenberg, author of Four Fish. “But by restricting quotas on forage fish like menhaden, and trying to value them as much more ecologically expensive, we would hopefully drive the market toward more sustainable [feed] alternatives such as brewery sludge, algae-based feeds, or possibly feeds derived from barley or yeast.”