Atlantic Menhaden

A member of the herring family, the Atlantic menhaden is a hugely important commercial species; greater numbers of this fish are taken each year by commercial fishermen than of any other fish in the United States. Excessive fishing, however, has caused population declines.


The Atlantic menhaden has a deep and compressed body, a big bony head, and a large mouth, with a lower jaw that fits into a notch in the upper jaw. It also has adipose eyelids, which make it appear sleepy. It has a dark blue back, silvery sides with an occasional reddish or brassy tint, pale yellow fins edged in black, a dark patch on the shoulder, and two or three scattered rows of smaller spots.


The Atlantic menhaden can reach a length of 1.5 feet.

Life history/Behavior

Atlantic menhaden form large and very compact schools, consisting of both young and adult fish; this makes them vulnerable to commercial fishermen, some of whom use spotter planes to locate the schools and direct commercial vessels to the fish, which are then encircled.

Menhaden have distinct seasonal migrations—northward in April and May and southward in the early fall. Spawning occurs year-round, although not in the same locations at the same time. For example, because high water temperatures are detrimental to breeding, the peak spawning season off the southern coast of the United States is October through March.

Egg estimates for each female run in the tens of thousands to hundreds of thousands. They are free floating and hatch at sea. Once hatched, the offspring are carried into estuaries and bays, which serve as sheltered nursery areas in which young Atlantic menhaden spend their first year. The fish mature between their first and third years.

Food and feeding habits

Using long filaments on their gills, Atlantic menhaden filter zooplankton and other small plants and animals out of the water.

Other Names

pogy, bunker, bughead, bugfish, fatback, menhaden, mossbunker; Danish, Finnish, Norwegian, Polish, Swedish: menhaden; French: menhaden tyran; Spanish: lacha tirana.


This species occurs in the western Atlantic Ocean from Nova Scotia to the Indian River in southern Florida. In the northern regions, it is primarily known as bunker. Habitat. Atlantic menhaden inhabit inland tidal areas of brackish water and coastal saltwater. They migrate in and out of bays and inlets and are found inshore in summer. Some populations move into deeper water in the winter.