Originally Published in Coastal Angler Boston August 2012: Atlantic Menhaden – The most important fish in the Atlantic. By: Capt. Tim Egenrieder
Most of us have been lucky enough to experience it – Whether in search of it or stumbled upon the telltale “flip” on a nice calm summer’s day. A noticeable school of pogies has made their presence known. They may just be actively feeding or they’re could be giant bluefish and huge striped bass hounding them.
The Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) is a member of the Family Clupeidae that consists of all the herrings, shads, sardines and other menhaden. Their range is from the southeastern coast of Florida to Nova Scotia. It is one of the few of its family members to breed in near coastal waters. Adult females produce huge numbers of eggs from 30,000 to over 1/3 of a million per spawn. The eggs hatch within a few days and drift into fertile estuaries where they will spend the first year of their life. Juvenile (peanut bunker) and adult menhaden are omnivorous filter feeders that swim open-mouthed often in tightly packed schools where they feed on phytoplankton, plankton and zooplankton.
Atlantic Menhaden are easily distinguished with a large Humerel spot just back of the gill plate and several smaller spots behind. They have large scales over a bright silverfish white belly with a yellow tinted back and fins.
The Atlantic Menhaden has developed many nicknames over time, several of which allude to their historical and regional significance. The word Menhaden’s most common believed derivation is from the Native American word Munnawhatteaug that roughly translates into “that which enriches,” a reference to their broad use as fertilizer. The common northern New England use of “Pogy” comes from Native Americans in Maine that referred to them as Pauhagen or Pookagan. New Yorker’s and surrounding areas common use of “Bunker” or “Mossbunker” dates back to the days of New Amsterdam. The Dutch name of marsbunker is used for horse mackerel, a similar looking fish native to their home waters. “Bug Fish” or “Bug Head” is a reference to the parasitic isopod (Cymothoa pregustator) that resides in the mouth of many pogies.
There has been considerable political and environmental pressure placed on the Omega Protein Corporation. This one company is believed to harvest several hundred million individuals of the species each year. They are then baked and ground to make Omega 3 oils, additives for things such as lipstick and fishmeal. The only state on the East Coast that they are permitted to operate is Virginia. The problem is that the vast majority of the breeding stock uses the Chesapeake as its nursery waters.
The ecological importance of this species cannot be overstated. Their abundance, range, feeding methods and forage provided make the Atlantic Menhaden arguably the most important fish of the Atlantic coast. It is estimated that each pogy can filter 4-6 gallons of water each minute. That math becomes daunting when you consider the size of schools they swim in over the range they inhabit. Almost every fish in the Atlantic feeds on menhaden at some point of their lifecycle. They can clean entire water systems while serving as one of the principal forage for nearly every fish of the Atlantic seaboard – (they’re pretty good to use as bait too). It certainly seems like a fish worth protecting?