Atlantic Menhaden

Life History

School of menhaden

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 Nova Scotia to northern Florida 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 New Jersey to the Carolinas. The majority of spawning primarily occurs 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

Atlantic Menhaden
Atlantic Menhaden

The majority of Atlantic menhaden harvest is reduced to fish meal, oil, and solubles (which is used in animal feed, fertilizer, health supplements for human consumption), and other products. The reduction fishery grew with the advent of purse seine gear in the mid-1800s. Purse seine landings peaked in 1956 at 715,200 mt. At the time, over 20 menhaden reduction factories were in operation from southern Maine to northern Florida. In the 1960s, the stock contracted geographically, and many of the fish factories north of Chesapeake Bay closed because of a scarcity of fish. Reduction landings dropped to a low of 162,300 mt in 1969.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the menhaden population began to expand (primarily because of a series of large year classes entering the fishery), and reduction landings rose to around 300,000-400,000 mt. Adult menhaden were again abundant in the northern portion of its range and as a result reduction factories in New England and Canada began processing menhaden again. However, by 1989 all shore-side reduction plants in New England had closed, mainly because of odor abatement regulations.

During the 1990s, the stock contracted again, mostly due to a series of poor year classes. Over the next decade, several reduction plants consolidated or closed, resulting in a significant decrease in fleet size and fishing capacity. Since 2005, there has been one operational reduction factory processing Atlantic menhaden on the Atlantic coast. From 2010-2012, reduction landings averaged 172,600 mt. The first coastwide TAC for Atlantic menhaden commercial landings was implemented in 2013. Reduction landings have been steady since the implementation of the TAC. For 2021, reduction landings were approximately 136,700 mt and comprised about 70% of the coastwide landings. Numerous portside samples are taken to obtain information about the weight, length, and age distribution of the fished population.

While reduction landings have declined since the mid-2000s, Atlantic menhaden bait landings have increased due to higher demand and increased availability in the northern part of the species’ range. Commercial bait landings occur in almost every Atlantic coast state. A majority of bait landings are used commercially in crab, lobster, and hook-and-line fisheries. Recreational anglers also catch Atlantic menhaden as bait for various game fish. In 2021, bait and recreational landings, which are grouped together in the model, were approximately 61,000 mt and comprised 30% of coastwide landings. Recreational landings (menhaden caught by recreational anglers and used as bait on a single trip) typically only comprise 1% of the coastwide landings annually.

Stock Status

Atlantic Menhaden
Atlantic Menhaden

A stock assessment update was completed in 2022 and determined that Atlantic menhaden are not overfished nor experiencing overfishing. Since 2020, the stock status of Atlantic menhaden is determined using ecological reference points (ERPs). The reference points for menhaden evaluate the health of the stock in an ecosystem context and account for its role as a forage fish.

ERPs were developed as part of the Atlantic Menhaden Single-Species and Ecological Reference Point (ERP) Assessments and Peer Review Reports in 2020. The single-species assessment acts as a traditional stock assessment using the Beaufort Assessment Model (BAM) to estimate population characteristics such as biomass, fishing mortality (F), recruitment, and fecundity. The ERP assessment used the Northwest Atlantic Coastal Shelf Model of Intermediate Complexity for Ecosystems (NWACS-MICE) to develop Atlantic menhaden ERPs. NWACS-MICE is an ecosystem model that focuses on four key predator species (striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, and spiny dogfish) and three key prey species (Atlantic menhaden, Atlantic herring, and bay anchovy). These species were chosen because diet data indicate they are top predators of Atlantic menhaden or are key alternate prey species for those predators. A more detailed overview of the stock assessments is available here. This tool allows managers to evaluate the trade-offs between Atlantic menhaden harvest and predator abundance to set reference points that take into account menhaden’s role as a forage fish.

The following ERPs are used in the management of Atlantic menhaden:

ERP target: the maximum fishing mortality rate (F) on Atlantic menhaden that sustains Atlantic striped bass at their biomass target when striped bass are fished at their F target

ERP threshold: the maximum F on Atlantic menhaden that keeps Atlantic striped bass at their biomass threshold when striped bass are fished at their F target.

ERP fecundity target and threshold: the long-term equilibrium fecundity that results when the population is fished at the ERP F target and threshold, respectively.

Atlantic striped bass was the focal species for the ERP definitions because it was the most sensitive predator fish species to Atlantic menhaden harvest in the model, so an ERP target and threshold that sustained striped bass would likely provide sufficient forage for other predators under current ecosystem conditions. For the development of the ERPs, all other focal species in the model (bluefish, weakfish, spiny dogfish, and Atlantic herring) were assumed to be fished at 2017 levels.

For more information about our efforts to develop and implement ERPs for Atlantic menhaden, check out our story map. Scroll through photos and figures to better understand what ERPs are, how they are used in the management of menhaden, and how they work towards achieving ecosystem approaches to fisheries management.

During the 2022 stock assessment update, the single-species assessment was re-run but not the ERP assessment. The ERP reference points, as developed by the NWACS-MICE model, reflect long-term equilibrium conditions and are not suitable for tracking short-term inter-annual variability in species abundance and fishing mortality, so updating them frequently will not provide improved management advice. The output of the single-species assessment was compared to the ERPs for the update to determine stock status. In 2021, population fecundity (FEC), a measure of reproductive capacity of the population, was above the ERP threshold and target, and F was below the ERP overfishing threshold and target. Therefore, overfishing is not occurring and the stock is not overfished. A more detailed overview of the stock assessment update can be found here.

The next Single-Species and ERP Benchmark Stock Assessments and Peer Review are scheduled for 2025, which will inform the TAC for 2026 and beyond.

Atlantic Coastal Management

Atlantic menhaden are currently managed under Amendment 3 to the FMP and Addendum I. Amendment 3 established commercial quota allocations to strike a balance between gear types and jurisdictions, and to facilitate future growth in the fisheries. The Amendment allocates a baseline quota to each jurisdiction, and then allocates the rest of the annual TAC based on historic landings. This measure provides fishing opportunities to states which previously had little quota while still recognizing historic landings in the fishery. The Amendment prohibits the rollover of unused quota, maintains the 6,000 pounds trip limit for applicable gear types following the closure of a directed fishery, and sets aside 1% of the TAC for episodic events in the states of New York through Maine. Also, the Amendment reduces the Chesapeake Bay cap, which was first implemented in 2006 to limit the amount of reduction harvest within the Bay, to 51,000 mt. This recognizes the importance of the Chesapeake Bay as nursery grounds for many species by capping reduction landings from the Bay to current harvest levels.

Addendum I, approved in November 2022, changes the allocations for the commercial fishery, originally established under Amendment 3. The Addendum creates a three-tiered system for minimum allocations to the states, with Pennsylvania receiving 0.01%; South Carolina, Georgia, Connecticut, Delaware, North Carolina, and Florida receiving 0.25%; and the remaining states continuing to receive a minimum of 0.5%. Furthermore, the Addendum allocates the remainder of the TAC, excluding the 1% reserved for the Episodic Event Set Aside (EESA) Program, on a state-by-state basis based on landings history of the fishery from 2018, 2019, and 2021.

Under revised Incidental Catch/Small-Scale Fishery (IC/SSF) provision, states now have the ability to elect to divide their quotas into sectors, enabling individual sectors to enter into the provision at different times. Additionally, the Addendum removes purse seines as a permitted small-scale directed gear, thereby, prohibiting them from harvesting under the IC/SSF provision. Finally, the Addendum counts IC/SSF landings against the TAC and if IC/SSF landings cause the TAC to be exceeded, then the Board must take action to modify one or both of permitted gear types and trip limits under the provision.

Total Allowable Catch
The Atlantic menhaden commercial fishery has been managed via a total allowable catch (TAC) and a quota system since the implementation of Amendment 2 in 2013. The first annual TAC was set at 170,800 mt (representing a 20% reduction from average landings between 2009 and 2011) for both the 2013 and 2014 seasons. Since then, the TAC has fluctuated between 187,866 mt (2015 and 2016 seasons) and 216,000 mt (2018 and 2019 fishing seasons).

Based on the positive results of the 2022 update and guided by the menhaden-specific ERPs, the TAC for the 2023 through 2025 fishing seasons was set at 233,550 mt, an approximate 20% increase from the 2021-2022 TAC level of 194,400 mt. Under the new TAC level, the probability of exceeding the ERP F target is 2% in 2023, 22% in 2024, and 28.5% in 2025. It has a zero percent chance of being above the F or FEC threshold in those years. This modest increase provides additional fishing opportunities, while maintaining a conservative risk level of exceeding the ERP target.

Stock Assessment Reports

Meeting Summaries & Reports

Press Releases