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What is a Menhaden?

By C.B. Fox
Updated May 21, 2024
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Menhaden, also known as bunker, pogie, fat-back, alewife and bugmouth, is a species of small fish and a member of the herring family. This fish is an integral part of the ecosystems it inhabits, as it provides food for many larger species of fish and feeds off algae growing in the water. Without the menhaden, the health of coastal waters on the Atlantic side of the Americas likely would suffer.

Menhaden are silver and covered with lateral black spots. Most specimens have a large black spot just behind their gill opening as well as a variable number of smaller spots down the length of their backs. The fins of the menhaden lack spines that can be found in other species of herring, and they also lack teeth.

These fish live in the Atlantic ocean, from eastern Florida to Nova Scotia. They can also be found in the Gulf of Mexico and down the eastern coast of South America, as far south as Argentina. They live in shallow waters and spawn in the ocean. Menhaden fry spend their first year in the brackish water of bays and the mouths of rivers.

At one year old, the menhaden is approximately 6 inches (15 cm) long. The fish are fully grown at between two and three years of age. At this time they are 12 inches (about 30 cm) long and ready to spawn.

Like other herrings, the menhaden form large schools. They feed near the surface of the water, often lifting their mouths out of the water as they eat. In schools, they are easy to spot, as their mouths and fins create a disturbance on the ocean’s surface, making them easy for fishing boats to locate.

These small fish feed exclusively on plant plankton that they filter from the water. Menhaden are an important part of a healthy marine ecosystem. They feed on algae, which helps keep the ocean free from excessive algae, which can lower the amount of dissolved oxygen available in the water.

Though these fish are not eaten by humans, they are used for animal feed and as bait fish. They are also one of the sources of omega 3 fish oil which can be used as a dietary supplement. Overfishing of this species has caused populations of larger fish that feed on them to decline. The loss of menhaden has also caused a problem with shellfish populations, as the depleted oxygen levels adversely affect their populations.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is a Menhaden and where can it be found?

Menhaden are small, oily fish from the herring family, predominantly found along the Atlantic coast of North America. They play a crucial role in the marine ecosystem as a food source for larger predators and are also harvested for fishmeal, oil, and bait. Menhaden prefer estuarine and coastal waters, forming large schools that can be seen near the surface.

Why are Menhaden important to the ecosystem?

Menhaden are often referred to as the "most important fish in the sea" due to their role as a keystone species. They are a vital food source for many predators, including larger fish, birds, and marine mammals. Additionally, Menhaden are filter feeders, which means they help to clean the water by consuming plankton and, in turn, reduce algal blooms and improve water quality.

How do Menhaden contribute to the fishing industry?

Menhaden are a cornerstone of the commercial fishing industry. They are harvested for their oil, which is used in dietary supplements, and for their meal, which is a high-protein feed for livestock, aquaculture, and pet food. According to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, the Menhaden fishery is one of the largest in the United States by volume.

What are the conservation concerns surrounding Menhaden?

Conservation concerns for Menhaden revolve around overfishing and the impact on the species that rely on them for food. Overfishing can lead to a decline in Menhaden populations, which can have cascading effects throughout the ecosystem. Regulatory bodies have implemented quotas and management plans to ensure sustainable Menhaden fisheries and protect the ecological balance.

How do Menhaden reproduce, and what is their lifespan?

Menhaden are prolific breeders; they spawn in the ocean, and their eggs are left to drift until hatching. Larvae then migrate to estuaries where they grow before returning to the ocean. Menhaden have a relatively short lifespan, with most living only two to three years, although they can reproduce within their first year of life.

Can Menhaden be consumed by humans?

While Menhaden are edible, they are not commonly consumed by humans due to their bony structure and strong flavor. Instead, they are primarily processed into fishmeal and oil. Menhaden oil is rich in omega-3 fatty acids and is often refined for use in dietary supplements, contributing to human health by supporting cardiovascular function and reducing inflammation.

AllThingsNature is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.

Discussion Comments

By anon130624 — On Nov 29, 2010

New science has shown that menhaden eat phytoplankton (algae) as a primary food source only when they are young-of-the-year (juveniles). As adults, menhaden eat primarily zooplankton (animal) This can be found at Lynch et.al. 2010, Marine Ecology Process Series, Mar Ecol Progress Series,Vol. 401: 195–209, 2010.

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