I had to write a paper on a pelagic species for my Marine Biology class a semester ago. I usually enjoy writing papers, this one was special though because of the knowledge I stood to gain about a fish so many of us fisherman use. Thought I'd share for anyone interested.
The Biggest Little Fish
University of Maryland University College
A young man walks into the Oyster Bay Tackle Shop along Coastal Highway in Ocean City, Maryland. Just as he has done on similar summer days in the years past he asks the cashier if they have any fresh Menhaden. She affirms that they do and he makes his purchase of three whole menhaden; which he will soon be cutting into chunks, attaching to a hook on the end of his surf rod and throwing it as far as possible into the pelagic zone of the Atlantic Ocean in an attempt to catch something big, that fights well, and hopefully tastes good too. The previous is my story, I am that young man; and as countless the number of times are that I have cut up a Menhaden I never knew what its habitat is, what its reproductive and feeding behavior is, the fish’s role in the food chain, other uses we humans have for the menhaden, and finally how its species is susceptible to man’s uses for it. For me and the many other men and women who have a similar story of a trip to the bait shop, the following information on the Menhaden is a little over due.
The Menhaden, pogy, or bunker as I call it, is considered a pelagic species. The word pelagic, from the Greek pelagikos is defined by Merriam-Webster (2009) as “of, relating to, or living or occurring in the open sea”. The ocean plays host to the Menhaden’s beginnings as it is the spawning ground of the species. The major spawning areas exist between New Jersey and the Carolinas. Spawning occurs primarily twenty to thirty miles offshore in the winter (Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation Inc. (CBEF), 2009). The eggs hatch at sea, and the larvae are carried into estuaries by the current where they reside for about a year. After reaching the average size of six inches long for a one year old Menhaden, the fish returns to the ocean where it forms large, near surface schools along the shore numbering in the thousands, from early spring through early winter (CBEF, 2009). During the winter months adults and juveniles alike migrate south, as far as Florida, where they continue to feed by way of a refined system that attributes to the species’ success.
Menhaden feed primarily on microscopic plants and on the smallest crustacea (Bigelow, H. B. & Schroeder, W. C. 2002). To do this the fish uses its mouth and pharyngeal sieve as a tow net capturing, says Bigelow et al (2002) “small annelid worms, various minute crustacea, schizopod and decapods larvae, rotifers … diatoms and peridinians”. By swimming with their mouth open, Menhaden are not only able to capture their food supply but also sift an estimated six to seven gallons of water a minute (Bigelow et al 2002). As I mentioned prior, quite an effective operation of feeding has produced a species that is unmatched in its utilization of the food supply around it. This isn’t to say that the species is untouchable. If the onslaught from predators like the bluefish, striped bass, loons and herons – just to name a few – are not enough, us humans harvest the fish for many different uses of our own, and as with everything, we have the capability to take too much.
Since 1860 the Menhaden has been the United State’s largest fishery. The amount of Menhaden we harvest annually was put best by H. Bruce Franklin (2008), he wrote:
“the annual haul of menhaden weighed more than the combined commercial catch of all other finned fish put together, including Atlantic and Pacific cod, tuna, salmon, halibut, pollock, herring, swordfish, had-dock, ocean perch, flounder, scup, striped bass, whiting, croaker, snapper, sardines, anchovies, dogfish, and mackerel.”
Uses for the fish go beyond bait for surf fishermen like me. They are harvested for their oil which is used in cosmetics, linoleum, health food supplements, lubricants, margarine, soap, insecticide, and paints. The dried out carcasses are then mashed, and containerized for use as feed for domestic cats and dogs, farmed fish, and, most of all, pigs and poultry (Franklin 2008). The Menhaden’s role in our world is much bigger than makeup and chicken feed. As important as Menhaden are economically, they play an even bigger role in the natural world.
You’ll notice that of all the uses for Menhaden, table fare was not on the list. Though we may never see them on our plates, they are the prey of the fish that we do commonly eat from the Atlantic. Without Menhaden, fisheries that we depend on for food would take a huge hit. The collapse would come from two separate factors. The most obvious would be that without Menhaden, the fish that we depend on for food would have less food themselves. The second would be deadly algal blooms. The Menhaden keep the growth of algae from the phytoplankton they eat in check. At the same time, they filter the water so more sunlight penetrates, which in turn promotes the growth of aquatic plants, which creates dissolved oxygen (Franklin 2008). Knowing what an important role Menhaden play in the operation of their ecosystem, it is easy to see why we must be stingy about how much of the species we harvest annually.
I use to praise the Menhaden for merely providing countless fishing memories in the surf, including an appearance for my girlfriend in the Maryland’s Department of Natural Resources fishing report.
Now I know it to be so much more than simply cut-bait. Menhaden is a source of food, economic gain, and plays such an enormous role in the balance of its ecosystem that little would survive in its absence. The Menhaden is truly the biggest little fish, bigger than you and me. It has been an absolute pleasure to learn and help spread the knowledge of what an amazing species it is.
pelagic. (2009). In Merriam-Webster Online Dictionary. Retrieved October 4, 2009, from
Pelagic - Definition and More from the Free Merriam-Webster Dictionary
Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus). (2009). Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation, Inc. Retrieved October 4, 2009, from Chesapeake Bay Ecological Foundation, Inc.
Bigelow, H. B. & Scroeder, W. C. (2002). Menhaden. Fishes of the Gulf of Maine. Retrieved on October 7, 2009, from Menhaden
H. Bruce Franklin. (2008). The Most Important Fish You’ve Never Heard of. Alternet. Retrieved October 8, 2009, from The Most Important Fish You've Never Heard of | Water | AlterNet