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.
IdentificationThe 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.
SizeThe Atlantic menhaden can reach a length of 1.5 feet.
Life history/BehaviorAtlantic 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.