Menhaden

Menhaden
Brevoortia tyrannus
(A.K.A. - Alewife, Bunker, Pogy, Bugmouth, Fat-Back)


Key Distinguishing Markings:

  • Menhaden are silvery in color with a distinct black shoulder spot behind their gill opening.
  • They have a variable number of smaller spots on their sides.
  • Like shad and herring, they possess a series of scutes along their belly.
  • Their bodies are moderately compressed.
  • Their caudal fin is deeply forked.
  • Menhaden fins lack spines.

Size:

  • The maximum size of Atlantic menhaden is approximately 15 inches.

Distribution:

  • Menhaden range from Nova Scotia, Canada to central Florida.

Habitat:

  • The Atlantic menhaden is a member of the herring family, Clupiedae, but unlike shad and river herring, they spawn in the ocean and their young develop and grow in the less saline waters of estuaries during their first year.

Food Preference:

  • Juveniles primarily feed on zooplankton. Adults are suspension-feeders that selectively graze on zooplankton, larger phytoplankton and diatoms.
  • Atlantic menhaden are an ecologically critical fish species. They are a trophic (food) link between plankton and top predators. They consume and redistribute a significant amount of energy within and between Chesapeake Bay and other estuaries, and the coastal ocean. This is due, in part, to their tremendous numbers, their individual growth rates, suspension feeding capacity, and seasonal movements.
  • Menhaden are also an extremely important prey species for many predatory fish such as striped bass, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, tuna, and sharks.
  • Because of their schooling behavior, they are also a favorite food for herons, egrets, ospreys, and eagles.

Spawning:

  • Atlantic menhaden mature at the end of their second year (late age 2) and will spawn in inshore waters over most of the continental shelf.
  • They spawn throughout the entire year at one location or another along the Atlantic coast with maximum spawning off the coast of North Carolina in late fall.
  • In the mid-Atlantic, these fish spawn from March through May.
  • Their eggs are buoyant and hatch within 2 to 3 days depending on temperature.
  • Larvae are pelagic and probably spend between one and three months in waters over the continental shelf before entering the Chesapeake Bay.
  • The Bay is an important nursery for juvenile menhaden; they occupy almost the entire Bay and its tributaries from above Baltimore to the mouth of the Bay in Virginia.
  • Larval fish enter the Bay in late winter and early summer and move into lower salinity waters in estuarine tributaries where they are found in great numbers. These juveniles, along with other immature fish (ages 1 and 2), remain in the Bay until the fall when most migrate to the ocean.
  • These migrants then move southward and winter offshore south of Cape Hatteras.
  • The following spring they migrate northward as adults to the Chesapeake Bay area and into New England waters.

Fishing Tips:

  • A recreational fishery does not exist for Atlantic menhaden in Maryland.
  • A small bait fishery for commercial and recreational use still exists along the coast.
  • Maryland has prohibited purse seining in state waters (0-3 miles from the coast), and in Chesapeake Bay since before the 1950s.
  • Purse seine fishing for menhaden takes place along the Atlantic coast and in the Virginia half of the Chesapeake Bay.
  • Current management measures on Atlantic menhaden can be found on the ASMFC website (www.ASMFC.org)

Fun Fact:

  • Native Americans in pre-colonial America called the fish 'munnawhatteaug', which means, 'fertilizer', and menhaden are probably the fish that the indigenous tribes urged the Pilgrims to plant along with their corn.
  • Atlantic menhaden are one of the most abundant fish species in estuarine and coastal Atlantic waters.
  • During summer months in Chesapeake Bay, these fish swim in large schools and their silvery bodies can often be seen splashing the water's surface.
  • The Chesapeake Bay is an important nursery for juvenile menhaden; they occupy almost the entire Bay and its tributaries from above Baltimore to the mouth of the Bay in Virginia.
  • A large crustacean parasite is commonly found in the mouth of Atlantic menhaden; hence, the common name, "Bugmouth".
  • Summer "kills" of large numbers of menhaden are common in Chesapeake Bay and are associated with low dissolved oxygen events.

Family: Clupiedae

Order:

Class:

For more information on Atlantic menhaden and their management, please contact Alexei Sharov or Nancy Butowski.

Illustration provided courtesy of the Maine Department of Marine Resources
Recreational Fisheries Program and the Maine Outdoor Heritage Fund.


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