The Atlantic Coast’s most important fish aren’t stripers, sharks or bluefin tuna. In fact, they’re not gamefish at all. The most important fish on the East Coast are Atlantic menhaden: deep-bellied, silver baitfish of the herring family that grow to 18 inches and school en masse near the surface, feeding on various planktons. Their eyes are large and dull. Black dots crowd their gill plates. Dull spots line iridescent flanks leading to a forked tail which, when struck by sunlight, appears faintly yellow-gold.
Each spring, menhaden move northward and inshore, congregating in schools that can be acres wide. They flip and roil near the surface, packed so tightly that the ocean appears black from above. Such dense hordes of wriggling protein make easy pickings for predators, attracting schools of migrating striped bass, flocks of birds and just about everything else. The bait balls are also easily spotted by pilots who radio their coordinates to seine netters. Besides being the backbone of the food chain, menhaden are a favorite target of the reduction fishery market, which grinds them for fish oil, animal feed and vitamins, among other things.
Atlantic menhaden—aka bunker or pogy—range from Novia Scotia to Florida but are historically most abundant in Mid-Atlantic waters. Their importance along the East Coast has been well documented in books like H. Bruce Franklin’s “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.”
Native Americans used menhaden as fertilizer; colonists, likely taught by natives, did the same. Reduction fisheries began targeting menhaden with purse seine nets in the mid-1800s. By 1956, purse seine landings of Atlantic menhaden peaked at 712,500 metric tons, roughly 1.6 billion pounds.
The impact of decades of unrestricted menhaden harvest remains unclear. Records published by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission indicate menhaden populations dipped in the 1960s and mid-’90s, the former leading to numerous processing facilities closing north of Maryland due to fish scarcity. The same report states that menhaden stocks “contracted geographically” around those times—shrank, to put it bluntly—but the report does not explicitly cite overfishing as a cause.
In an effort to stabilize the Atlantic menhaden stock, ASMFC implemented the first-ever coast-wide cap—Total Allowable Catch—on harvest in the 2010s.
Since the coastwide cap, year-to-year menhaden harvests have fluctuated but without drastic dips. Recreational anglers hope it stays that way. ASMFC’s 2017 stock assessment declared that “Atlantic menhaden are neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing.” This year, ASMFC enacted a TAC of 216,000 metric tons, divided amongst Atlantic states.
Max Appelman, fishery management plan coordinator for ASMFC, explains that each Atlantic state, Maine to Florida, receives 0.5% of the TAC, with the remainder divvied up based on average landings from past years.
While the cap is designed to limit total coastal harvest, added protection is needed where menhaden are most vulnerable, like bays and estuaries that act as their nurseries. Total harvest limitations might benefit the overall stock, but don’t safeguard regionally vulnerable populations from potential crash.
“The stock is modeled at the coastwide level; the assessment does not provide biomass or population estimates on smaller, regional scales,” Appelman said.
Aware of the cap’s shortcomings, ASMFC is working to develop region-specific stock assessment models, while considering menhaden’s crucial role as forage fish. That’s good news for East Coast anglers whose targets depend on menhaden’s vitality.
My home state of Maine—situated at the northern terminus of menhaden’s range—was capped at 0.52% of the TAC, mostly for commercial use as lobster bait. Earlier this summer, Maine asked for and was granted an extended season on menhaden to make up for a shortage of lobster bait (spurred by poor herring numbers). By contrast, the state of Virginia—home to the East Coast’s last reduction fishery fleet and refinery, Omega Protein based in Reedville—was allocated over 78% of the TAC. (New Jersey was awarded the second-highest cap at 10.87%; Maryland next at 1.87%). It’s hard to not question the staggering state cap differentials, even considering that caps are based in part on previous years’ harvest, and that reduction fishing occurs solely in Virginia.
Like commercial and reduction fishermen, recreational anglers benefit from healthy menhaden populations. These baitfish attract and feed all the fish we love to catch and are valuable, effective bait. Live-line a menhaden north of the Carolinas and you could—depending on the season—hook a striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, cod, bluefin tuna, blue or white shark. Farther south, a live menhaden might yield striper, drum, wahoo, tarpon and uncountable other species.
In other words, menhaden nourish almost every large predator in the Atlantic with their protein-rich, oily meat. They are not particularly difficult to find or catch, so predators can feed without expending much energy. When menhaden stocks rise and fall, the effects reverberate across the Atlantic food web, and recreational anglers feel the effects.
“Menhaden are a lifeblood for the Atlantic Ocean,” says Joseph Gordon, U.S. oceans project director at The Pew Charitable Trusts. Gordon works for science-based solutions to fight overfishing and to rebuild depleted fish populations.
“We’ve worked on menhaden for over a decade,” Gordon said. “In that time, management went from no coastwide limit to science-based management and a significant recovery. A decline in population of menhaden would cause widespread harm for key predators that are struggling themselves, like striped bass and weakfish.”
As a primary Atlantic food source, Gordon explains, menhaden transfer energy “from the smallest creatures, like plankton, to the largest, like humpback whales, as menhaden migrate in massive schools along the coast.”
Here in Maine, where menhaden sightings dropped in the mid- to late-’90s, more schools have been spotted along the rocky coastline in recent years, causing excitement among recreational anglers and guides who hope large stripers and bluefish might follow.
“I’ve had a few charters we jokingly called Nat Geo trips,” said Portland, Maine-based Captain Luis Tirado. “We’d literally stop fishing [for stripers] just to watch the show: giant bluefin tuna and minke whales were feeding on menhaden next to my boat, in 12 feet of water right off the beach.”
Tirado grew up fishing stripers at the mouth of Maine’s famed Kennebec River. “Around the beginning of July, menhaden would show up and with them would be large striped bass, we’re talking fish in the 20- to 50-pound range,” he said. “We’d see a pile of commercial boats [netting menhaden] and we’d go alongside and hand them a bucket with a five-dollar bill and they’d fill it with menhaden for our live well.”
In the late-’90s, Tirado says the menhaden seemed to disappear; he didn’t see another one in Maine waters for years. While he acknowledges the cyclical patterns of baitfish, Tirado was alarmed by their sudden absence and by the corollary drop off of large stripers.
He and his clients are excited to see menhaden schools returning to Maine, even if mature stripers aren’t following like they used to. “If we don’t have these healthy schools of menhaden around,” he said, “I don’t think we’ll see big bass return with any regularity.”
Farther south, commercial fishing for menhaden (for use as blue crab bait and processing in reduction facilities) takes the vast majority of the Atlantic’s TAC. It has raised concerns about menhaden in one of the Atlantic’s most vital estuaries.
“The Chesapeake Bay was historically the most important nursery for menhaden coastwide,” Gordon said. “Their life history, like striped bass, is to spend their juvenile years in areas like the bay and then migrate up and down the coast. We [at Pew] think new evidence, such as poor recruitment of new fish, lower amounts of menhaden caught [in the bay] for the same amount of effort, and poor health of predators like striped bass supports the need to keep and lower the cap.”
Gordon has seen increased catch allotments lead to overfishing and depletion of mackerel, shad and herring. He doesn’t want to see that happen with Atlantic menhaden. He is excited, however, by new menhaden management measures that account not just for commercial needs of humans but also the needs of ocean predators, including beloved East Coast game fish: the migratory stripers Luis Tirado hunts for a living, the bluefish that feed families on Long Island, and the tarpon that flood Florida waters each spring.
“We need the ASMFC to manage success well,” Gordon said. “Menhaden have begun to regain their historic northern range. And where they’re reappearing, predators are following, and people are noticing. Humpback whales are lunge-feeding on large schools off New York City. Dolphin pods are chasing them. Osprey chicks are surviving better. And recreational fishing has improved where menhaden abundance has grown.”
Now more than ever, East Coast anglers and management teams are focused on advocating for the health of menhaden. Regionally-specific assessment models might lead to a more comprehensive management approach, stronger menhaden stock, and—in the end—healthier game fish populations from Maine to Florida.