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Menhaden (Brevoortia patronus)
Also known as: Alewife, Bugfish, Fatback, Large-scale menhaden, Ly, Pogy, Sardine, Shad, Razorbelly
Source: Wild-caught in Gulf state waters from West Florida to Texas

Gulf menhaden are found from the Yucatan Peninsula in Mexico, across the western and northern Gulf to Tampa Bay, Florida. They’re most abundant from eastern Texas to western Alabama.

Menhaden eggs float in loose groups near the surface of nearshore Gulf waters. Larvae move inshore, and early juveniles live near marsh edges of the estuary where they can find plenty of food and protection from predators. Juvenile menhaden spend most of their first year of life in brackish and near-freshwater estuaries and rivers. Adults are found in nearshore waters of the Gulf. Both juveniles and adults typically live in open water over bottoms with no vegetation. Menhaden swim and feed in huge schools, usually made up of the same size and age of fish.

In the Gulf, menhaden grow rapidly and sexually mature before they reach two years of age. They spawn offshore from September to April, with a peak in the winter. They produce a lot of offspring—each female produces an average of more than 20,000 eggs when they spawn. Eggs hatch within about 48 hours after they’re fertilized. Larvae rely on currents to help them migrate inshore to rivers, bays, bayous, and other nearshore habitats to feed and grow. Once they mature, menhaden return offshore, generally in early fall, to spawn. Menhaden can live to about five or six years old, although the majority of the fish in the population are one or two.

Young menhaden filter feed on the abundant supply of plankton in estuaries. Larger juvenile and adult menhaden are also filter feeders, eating zooplankton and organic detritus/silt near the water surface. In fact, fishermen often locate schools of menhaden by the splashes they make feeding at the surface. A large number of fish, marine mammals, and birds feed on menhaden because they’re so abundant and school together.

Adult menhaden are commonly eight inches in length but can grow up to a foot long. They have a large head, no teeth, and large scales. Their body is silvery with a greenish back and yellowish fins. There’s a prominent black spot behind the gill cover, followed by a row of smaller spots.

You’ve probably never eaten menhaden, at least in a conventional way. Menhaden are very boney and oily and have no appeal as food. However, they support a very important reduction fishery—meaning the whole fish is “reduced” to produce fishmeal, oil, and solubles that go into all kinds of products, from aquaculture and agriculture feed and fish oil pills to pet food and fertilizers. In fact, the commercial Gulf menhaden reduction fishery is one of the United States' largest and most valuable fisheries. Annual landings have averaged nearly 443,000 metric tons over the last decade. Menhaden are also one of the best baitfish available and are harvested for use in crab, crawfish, and other important commercial and recreational fisheries.

Thanks to cooperation among scientists and managers from the five Gulf states, NOAA Fisheries, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, and the Gulf menhaden industry, Gulf menhaden fisheries have been successfully managed under a regional fishery management plan for more than four decades. Together, they developed a strategy to protect this valuable resource and fishery through extensive monitoring and consistent regulations across the states. All parties actively participate in Gulf menhaden fishery management, and according to the most recent assessment, the menhaden population and fishery continue to thrive in the Gulf.

Methods Seasons Landings
Commercial Recreational

Before World War II, most menhaden were dried and sold as fish scrap for fertilizer. Annual landings were about 40,000 metric tons during the early 1940s. After the war, worldwide demand for fishmeal for poultry feed and fish oil for cooking oil and margarine increased, and the modern menhaden fishery was born. As the Gulf menhaden fishery expanded, landings ranged between 100,000 and 200,000 metric tons during most of the 1950s. By 1959, landings reached 335,ooo metric tons and continued to grow to 522,000 metric tons by 1969. Landings in the 1970s peaked at 815,000 metric tons in 1978 but fell to 545,000 metric tons by 1981. From 1982 to 1987, annual Gulf menhaden landings were unprecedented, averaging above 770,000 metric tons; the fishery had record landings of nearly 1 million metric tons in 1984. The fleet of menhaden vessels had grown from just 10 in 1945 to 70 or 80 in the 1980s, and up to 14 menhaden processing plants spanned the northern Gulf of Mexico, from Apalachicola, Florida, to Sabine Pass, Texas.

Landings, fleet size, and processing plants all decreased in the 1990s due to corporate consolidation, volatile product prices, and unpredictable weather conditions. Annual landings averaged 545,000 metric tons during the 1990s. Today, there are about 30 vessels active in the Gulf reduction fishery, with average annual landings of nearly 443,000 metric tons over the last decade (still one of the largest volume fisheries in the United States). Three processing plants continue to operate in Louisiana and Mississippi—Daybrook Fisheries, Inc. owns one of these plants, and Omega Protein, Inc. owns the other two. Most menhaden meal now goes into aquaculture feed, and menhaden oil (a high-grade source of omega-3 fatty acids) is in high demand from the pharmaceutical, pet food, processed-food, and aquaculture industries. Menhaden oil is also used in non-consumable products such as paints and dyes. Most soluble menhaden products are used as natural fertilizers by golf courses and organic farming and plant nurseries. Menhaden products are used both domestically and abroad—a lot of fish meal is exported to China for aquaculture and pig feed and oil typically goes to Europe and Canada for salmon feed.

The Gulf menhaden bait fishery grew rapidly during the 1980s (especially off Louisiana and the west coast of Florida), with annual landings averaging 4,500 metric tons. Landings grew then leveled off in the 1990s (annual average landings of 9,000 metric tons). Today, bait landings are almost negligible (annual average of about 350 metric tons), especially compared to reduction fishery landings. However, there has been recent interest in expanding the Gulf menhaden bait fishery, with reductions in the availability of bait from the East Coast.

Source: NOAA Fisheries Annual Commercial Landings Statistics

Landings Summary Data :  

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Overview Current Abundance Additional Reasearch

NOAA Fisheries Beaufort Laboratory in North Carolina has monitored the Gulf menhaden reduction fishery since 1955. The menhaden industry supplies the lab with fish samples which they use to document the size and age of the catch, as well as daily logbooks itemizing catch, fishing location, how long nets are deployed, and weather conditions for individual net sets. The lab collects and analyzes these data and also calculates fishing effort and the composition of the catch (size and age of the fish). This Gulf menhaden data set is one of the most detailed and data-rich of the commercial fisheries currently operating in the Gulf.

The five Gulf states collect fishery independent data on menhaden from their fish sampling programs. Menhaden aren’t necessarily the target of their surveys, but scientists document menhaden numbers and lengths as well as water conditions such as temperature, salinity, and dissolved oxygen. These data help scientists monitor the menhaden population.

Experts from the Gulf states, the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, NOAA Fisheries, and the menhaden industry compile and analyze all of these data to assess the status of the menhaden resource and ensure the fishery is operating sustainably.

Current Abundance

The most recent assessment of Gulf menhaden concluded hat the stock is abundant (not overfished) and harvest rates are at appropriate evels (no overfishing).

Additional Research

There are a number of projects ongoing in the region related to Gulf menhaden and baitfish in general. Scientists at the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s (FWC) Fish and Wildlife Research Institute are exploring annual surveys of bait?sh populations in Florida using sound waves to estimate the size of bait?sh schools and overall abundance along Florida’s west coast. FWC is also investigating the importance of various prey (including menhaden) in the diets of fish captured in their sampling programs. Some universities are conducting similar projects related to the importance of menhaden and other baitfish as food for other species and the importance of where baitfish feed.

Many Gulf states are considering examining the age and growth of menhaden through their various independent sampling programs. They’re training their biologists on how to age menhaden using consistent techniques. Some states are collecting additional samples to examine the genetic makeup of the Gulf menhaden population in areas where other species of menhaden are also found. They’re also studying the abundance and reproductive potential of menhaden that spawn offshore during the winter when commercial samples are not available.

Who's Responsible Management Program
Who's Responsible

As the Gulf menhaden fishery generally operates in state waters, individual Gulf state fisheries management agencies are responsible for monitoring and managing the Gulf menhaden resource in their waters.

The Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission (GSMFC) helps coordinate monitoring and management among the Gulf states. GSMFC’s Menhaden Advisory Committee, comprised of one member from each Gulf state fisheries management agency, one member from each Gulf menhaden company, one member from the menhaden fishing industry, and one member from NOAA Fisheries, hears and addresses all issues related to the Gulf menhaden resource and fishery and makes management and research recommendations to the states to consider in their own management programs. GSMFC’s recommendations are only suggestions and not mandated by law unless enacted by the individual states.

Management Program

The general goal of the GSMFC’s draft Regional Management Plan for the Menhaden Fishery of the Gulf of Mexico is to provide a management strategy for Gulf menhaden that continues to allow maximum annual harvests while protecting the stock from overfishing. Representatives from each Gulf state, GSMFC, and other experts recently updated this plan from the 2002 version; it’s currently out for public comment and should be released in 2015.

While the individual Gulf states are responsible for menhaden in their respective waters, management measures are fairly consistent across the Gulf.


  • Fishermen must have the appropriate licenses and permits to participate in the commercial menhaden fishery.
  • The season for the reduction fishery runs from the third Monday in April through November 1st. Managers implemented the season to allow offshore menhaden the opportunity to spawn, maximize fishing opportunities, and reduce danger from fishing during the winter. The fishery may close early in Texas if fishermen harvest their allowed quota of 31.5 million pounds (14,288 metric tons). Texas is currently the only state with a cap on menhaden harvests; they implemented this cap to prevent future expansion of fishing in their state waters.
  • Louisiana and Alabama allow an additional season for the bait fishery after the reduction fishery closes; Louisiana’s bait fishery runs from the end of the reduction season to December 1st or until the harvest quota of 3,000 metric tons is met. If the quota is not met before December 1st, an early bait season begins on April 1st of the following year.
  • The reduction fishery does not operate in Florida’s waters due to gear restrictions and area closures; there is a 1 million pound (454 metric tons) harvest quota for the bait fishery in Florida’s waters.
  • Each state has closed certain areas to purse seine gear and/or reduction fishing, mainly to minimize conflicts among user groups.
  • Most states limit the amount of bycatch commercial menhaden fishermen may have. Some states also limit specific species; for example, no purse seine fishermen may have any red drum aboard his vessel in Mississippi’s state waters.
  • Most states have gear restrictions, for example on minimum mesh size and maximum length of purse seines, to standardize the gear used throughout the fishery. Florida does not allow purse seines larger than 500 square feet, effectively prohibiting the menhaden reduction fishery in state waters.