Atlantic Menhaden

Life History

Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) occupy estuaries and coastal waters from northern Florida to Nova Scotia and are believed to consist of a single population. Adult and juvenile menhaden form large, near-surface schools, primarily in estuaries and nearshore ocean waters from early spring through early winter. By summer, menhaden schools stratify by size and age along the coast, with older and larger menhaden found farther north. During fall-early winter, menhaden of all sizes and ages migrate south around the North Carolina capes to spawn.

Sexual maturity begins as early as age one to just before age three, with major spawning areas from the Carolinas to New Jersey. The majority of spawning occurs primarily offshore (20-30 miles) during winter. Buoyant eggs hatch at sea, and larvae are carried into estuarine nursery areas by ocean currents. Juveniles spend most of their first year in estuaries, migrating to the ocean in late fall.

Menhaden are very efficient filter feeders. Water is pushed through specialized gill rakers that are formed into a basket that allows them to capture plankton. Menhaden are an important component of the food chain, providing a link between primary production and higher organisms by consuming plankton and providing forage for species such as striped bass, bluefish, and weakfish, to name just a few.

Commercial & Recreational Fisheries

School of menhaden

Atlantic menhaden caught as part of Maryland's Estuarine Fish Community Sampling Program. Photo © Frank Marenghi, MD DNR.

The Atlantic menhaden commercial fishery consists of a reduction fishery and a bait fishery. The reduction fishery, named because it processes the whole fish into fish meal, fish oil, and fish solubles, first began in New England during the early 1800s and spread south after the Civil War. The reduction fishery grew with the advent of purse seine after the Civil War in the mid-1800s. Purse seine landings reached a high point in the 1950s with peak landings of 712,100 metric tons (mt) in 1956 (Figure 1). At that time, over 20 menhaden reduction factories ranged from northern Florida to southern Maine. In the 1960s, the Atlantic menhaden stock contracted geographically, and many of the fish factories north of the Chesapeake Bay closed due to a scarcity of fish. Reduction landings dropped to a low of 161,000 mt in 1969. In the 1970s and 1980s, the menhaden population began to expand (primarily due to a series of above average year classes entering the fishery), and reduction landings rose to around 300,000-400,000 mt. Adult menhaden were again abundant in the northern half of their range and, as a result, reduction factories in New England and Canada began processing menhaden again by the mid-1970s. However, by 1989 all shore-side reduction plants in New England had closed, mainly because of odor abatement regulations.

During the 1990s, the Atlantic menhaden stock contracted again, largely due to a series of poor to average year classes. Over the next decade, several reduction plants consolidated or closed, resulting in a significant reduction in fleet size and fishing capacity. By 2005, there was only one remaining reduction plant in operation on the Atlantic coast processing menhaden into fishmeal and oil. This is the Omega Protein plant, located in Reedville, Virginia, which is still operational today. It harvested 316.2 million pounds of menhaden for reduction in 2015, representing a 9.4% increase from the 2014 landings, and a 1.8% decrease from the previous 5-year (2010-2014) average of 321.9 million pounds. Seven purse-seine vessels landed Atlantic menhaden during the 2015 season.

The coastwide bait fishery supplies fishermen with bait for popular commercial (e.g., American lobster and blue crab) and sport fish (e.g., striped bass and bluefish), and has grown throughout its history along with the expansion of many fisheries that utilize menhaden as bait. The preliminary estimate of the coastwide directed bait harvest for 2015 is 92.5 million pounds. This is a 10.6% increase from the 2014 bait harvest, and a 10.4% decrease from the average harvest of the previous five years (2010-2014) of 102.1 million pounds. New Jersey (51%), Virginia (35%), Maryland (6%), Massachusetts (3%), and the Potomac River Fisheries Commission (2.5%) landed the five largest shares while all other states landed less than 1% of the 2015 commercial bait harvest. Between 2001 and 2012, the percent of total landings used for bait rose from 13% to a high of 28%. In 2015, bait harvest composed approximately 22% of the total menhaden harvest.

Stock Status

Atlantic Menhaden

Based on the revised reference points recommended by the 2015 benchmark stock assessment and approved by the Peer Review Panel, Atlantic menhaden are neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing. The revised reference points are based on historical performance of the population during the time frame 1960-2012, a period during which the Technical Committee considers the population to have been sustainably fished. Fishing mortality rates have remained below the revised overfishing threshold (1.26) since the 1960s, and have hovered around the revised overfishing target (0.38) through the 1990s. In 2003, fishing mortality dropped below the revised target and was estimated to be 0.22 in 2013 (the latest year in the assessment). In other words, fishing mortality has been decreasing throughout the history of the fishery, and is now 42% below the target.

The biological reference point used to determine the fecundity target is defined as the mature egg production one would expect when the population is being fished at the revised threshold fishing mortality rate. Population fecundity, a measure of reproductive capacity, was estimated to be well above the threshold in recent years. In 2013, fecundity is estimated to be 170 trillion eggs which is 10% below the revised target value (189 trillion eggs).

Atlantic Coastal Management

Atlantic Menhaden

Atlantic menhaden are currently managed under Amendment 2, approved in 2012. Amendment 2 established a 170,800 mt total allowable catch (TAC) beginning in 2013 in response to the 2011 benchmark stock assessment, which found that menhaden were experiencing overfishing. The established TAC represents a 20% reduction from the average landings of 2009-2011 and an approximate 25% reduction from 2011 landings. The Amendment allocates the TAC on a state-by-state basis based on landings history from 2009-2011. States are required to close their fisheries when the state-specific portion of the TAC has been reached; any overages must be paid back the following year. Under Amendment 2, 1% of the overall TAC is set aside for episodic events, and if it is unused as of October 31, it is redistributed to all the states based on the Amendment 2 allocation percentages. Amendment 2 also adopted biological reference points for biomass which are based on maximum spawning potential, with the goal of increasing abundance, spawning stock biomass, and menhaden availability as a forage species.

In response to concerns that the 6,000 pound per vessel bycatch allowance in Amendment 2 does not support cooperative fishing, the Board approved Addendum I in August 2016. The Addendum modifies the bycatch provision by allowing two permitted fishermen working on the same vessel using stationary multispecies gears to land up to 12,000 pounds of menhaden per trip per day. The practice of two permitted individuals working together on the same vessel allows fishermen to pool resources of fuel and crew, and primarily occurs in the Chesapeake Bay pound net fishery.

In October 2016, the Atlantic Menhaden Management Board approved a 2017 TAC of 200,000 mt, a 6.45% increase from the 2016 TAC. According to Technical Committee analysis this increase has a zero percent probability of resulting in overfishing. The TAC will be made available to the states/jurisdictions based on the state-by-state allocation established by Amendment 2. 

Amendment 3 to the Atlantic Menhaden FMP is currently under development, initiated in 2015 to address several concerns in the fishery including the adoption of ecological reference points (ERPs) and a new quota allocation scheme. The ERPs are meant to account for changes in the abundance of prey and predator species when setting overfished and overfishing thresholds for menhaden. The Board reviewed public input in February 2017 and provided guidance on management options to include in Amendment 3. Under the current timeline, the Board will consider final action on Draft Amendment 3 at the end of 2017.

In conjunction with the Draft Amendment 3 process, the Board initiated a Socioeconomic Analysis of the Atlantic Menhaden Commercial Bait and Reduction Fishery in March 2016. The study characterized coastwide commercial fisheries, including bait and reduction sectors and the communities they support. Results of the socioeconomic survey were presented to the Board in February 2017 and will be incorporated into Draft Amendment 3.


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