Menhaden: Tiny Fish, Big Impact

Menhaden is a tiny fish with a big impact on the ecosystem. Because of recent overfishing, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission recommended a change in the amount of catch allowed this year from 92% of the spawning population to 70%.

What is a Menhaden and Why Do We Care?

Menhaden is a small fish that filter feeds on phytoplankton. This makes it an important cleaning fish for areas that have algal blooms from industrial and agricultural runoff, like the Chesapeake Bay.

While they are considered inedible for humans, menhaden serve as a prey fish for many of the fish that people do like to eat. The overfishing of the menhaden has caused many of the edible fish species to decline, making it harder for small fisherman to earn a living, thereby impacting coastal communities.

Omega Protein, a company based in Texas whose largest plant is in Virginia, is responsible for 80% of the annual menhaden catch. The company cooks the fish at their Reedville plant and grinds them up for use in animal feeds, pet food, agricultural fertilizers, and fish oil supplements.

Omega Protein and the Menhaden Catch

Omega Protein has resisted fishing caps through the years and gotten their way. If it seems odd that a single company could sway scientific opinion, it is because the menhaden fishery is unique.

Most fisheries are regulated by local and state commissions, but the menhaden fishery is regulated by the Virginia legislature. In order for the fishing cap to be enforced, the Virginia legislature must agree to it.

Even though the recognition of the need for limiting the menhaden catch is a good thing, it may not matter if the Virginia legislature doesn’t act on it.


Atlantic Menhaden Stock Assessment and Review Panel Reports by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

Photo of menhaden by SEFSC Pascagoula Laboratory; Collection of Brandi Noble, NOAA/NMFS/SEFSC, used with Creative Commons license.

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Author: Heather Carr

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