Community News

Save menhaden, a humble but mighty fish
10/19/2017 Volume XLVII, No. 42

Chances are, you haven’t heard much about the saltwater fish known as menhaden, or bunker. Recreational fishermen don’t catch them, you won’t find them on a menu, and you’re unlikely to see them on a poster or T-shirt.

But if you’ve ever seen an osprey flying overhead with a fish in its talons or a huge humpback whale breaching, you probably have the humble menhaden to thank!

Menhaden is what’s known as a “keystone” species, one that plays an exceptionally important role in the food chain. If a keystone species is lost, the ecosystem changes dramatically or ceases to function, causing a domino effect on other species.

Menhaden are found up and down the Atlantic coast, from Maine to Florida. They’re small, bony and oily, averaging 15 inches in length, and they eat by filtering plankton from the water.

Many species depend on menhaden for food: birds like ospreys, bald eagles, common loons, cormorants and northern gannets; marine mammals like humpback whales, harbor seals and dolphins; and fish like striped bass, tuna, bluefish, weakfish, sharks, and flounder.

Menhaden is valuable to the commercial fishing industry, which nets the fish for two main purposes. About 80 percent is sold to the “reduction” industry and processed for fertilizer, fish meal and nutritional supplements like omega 3 fish oil. The rest of is sold as bait for crabs, lobsters and sport fishing.

With so much depending on this one fish, caution is needed to ensure menhaden are not over-harvested and remain available to wildlife.

The resurgence of once-rare species like ospreys, bald eagles and humpback whales along the New Jersey coast has been credited in large part to abundant menhaden.

According to biologist Ben Wurst of the Conserve Wildlife Foundation of NJ, menhaden are critical food sources for osprey chicks. During osprey nesting surveys conducted along the Atlantic coast, he said, evidence of menhaden was found in almost all nests.

 “With healthy numbers of menhaden, the osprey population will remain stable. With less, the osprey population will decline,” said Wurst.

At one time, New Jersey’s osprey population was down to only 50 nesting pairs due to the pesticide DDT and habitat loss. But in recent years the population has rebounded to about 600 nesting pairs, a true conservation success story.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) will vote in November on a management plan for menhaden - essentially deciding how much of this keystone species should remain available for larger fish, marine mammals and coastal birds.

The Commission is accepting public comments on a draft amendment to the menhaden fishery plan until the end of the business day next Tuesday, Oct. 24. The amendment proposes a range of methods to determine if menhaden are overfished and, hence, if commercial fishing limits should be reduced.

To maintain a healthy ocean ecosystem and food web, the best method is “Option E,” which will help ensure that menhaden are responsibly managed to benefit both humans and wildlife. This option recognizes the growing need of other species – including those on the rebound – for a steady food source.

“We need to manage our fisheries recognizing all the ecological interconnections that exist,” said Tim Dillingham, executive director of the American Littoral Society, a coastal protection organization based in Sandy Hook. “The health of the menhaden population is directly related to the health of osprey, whales and other ocean wildlife. We need to make our decisions aware of the fact that we can’t have one without the other.”

Speak up for menhaden – and all of the species that rely on this keystone fish! Please contact the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission and urge members to choose Option E in Section 2.6 of Amendment 3's draft to the Atlantic menhaden’s Fishery Management Plan, and support ecosystem-based management.

Email the Commission at, and include “Draft Amendment 3” in the subject line. You can also go to the National Audubon Society’s action center at

To view the menhaden fishery plan, go to

And for more information on preserving New Jersey’s land and natural resources, visit the New Jersey Conservation Foundation website at or contact me at


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