Atlantic menhaden caught as part of Maryland's Estuarine Fish Community Sampling Program. Photo © Frank Marenghi, MD DNR.
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.
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 seines in the mid-1800s and reached peak landings in 1956 at 712,100 metric tons (mt). At the 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. Consequently, reduction landings dropped to 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 2006, 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. In 2016, roughly 137.4 mt were landed for reduction purposes.
While reduction landings have declined since the mid‐2000s, menhaden landings for bait have become increasingly important to the total coastwide landings of menhaden. Commercial bait landings occur in almost every Atlantic coast state. A majority of the menhaden‐for‐bait landings are used commercially in crab, lobster, and hook‐and‐line fisheries. Recreational fishermen also catch Atlantic menhaden as bait for various game fish. Bait harvest in 2016 is estimated at 97 million pounds and represents 24% of total menhaden landings. The largest contributors to the bait fishery are New Jersey (47% of bait landings in 2016) and Virginia (34% of bait landings in 2016).
Based on the 2017 Stock Assessment Update, Atlantic menhaden are neither overfished nor experiencing overfishing. Stock status was evaluated against the assessment’s reference points, which used historical performance of the population during the 1960‐2012 time frame. Fishing mortality rates have remained below the overfishing threshold (1.85) since the 1960s, and hovered around the overfishing target (0.8) through the 1990s. In 2003, fishing mortality dropped below the target and was estimated to be 0.51 in 2016 (the latest year in the assessment update). Generally, fishing mortality has been decreasing throughout the history of the fishery.
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 threshold fishing mortality rate. Population fecundity, a measure of reproductive capacity, has been well above the threshold (57,295 billion eggs) and at or near the target (99,467 billion eggs) in recent years. In 2016, fecundity is estimated to be 83,486 billion eggs, still well above the threshold but below the target.
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 was initiated in 2015 to consider the development of ecological reference points (ERPs) and revisit allocation methods. Given the role of menhaden as forage fish, ERPs are intended to account for changes in the abundance of prey and predator species when setting overfished/overfishing thresholds and targets for menhaden. The Board is also investigating various allocation scenarios given concern that the current method does not provide equitable access to all gear types, jurisdictions, and regions. 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 incorporated into Draft Amendment 3, which was approved for public comment in August 2017. The Board is scheduled to take final action on the Amendment in mid-November 2017.