Menhaden in Virginia

menhaden fishing is centered on the Omega Protein processing plant in Reedville, the last remaining facility on the East Coast that still extracts fish oil from menhaden
menhaden fishing is centered on the Omega Protein processing plant in Reedville, the last remaining facility on the East Coast that still extracts fish oil from menhaden
Source: ESRI, ArcGIS Online

Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) may be the most important fish in the Chesapeake Bay. The species supports a major industrial fish processing plant in Reedville, which creates fish oil rich in Omega-3 fatty acids. Menhaden - also known as mossbunker, fatbacks, bunker, alewife, and pogy - also strain phytoplankton and zooplankton from the water, filtering and converting excessive amounts of algae into fish protein. Other fish (especially striped bass or "stripers") then feed on the menhaden, as do ospreys and bald eagles.

Menhaden populations are lower than in the 1960's-1980's. Without vast schools of menhaden, algae in the bay is underutilized. After the algae dies, it decays on the bottom of the Chesapeake Bay and creates oxygen-deficient dead zones. When oysters, menhaden, and other filter feeders strip algae from the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, the clarity of the water improves, Submerged Aquatic Vegetation (SAV) can grow better, and other aquatic life such as blue crabs can utilize the bottom without starving for oxygen.

Humans do not eat menhaden directly, not even in fish tacos or reconstituted into fake crab meat; the fish is too oily and bony. Instead, menhaden is cooked to extract the oil, "reducing" it to extract the oil. The cooked and pressed remains of the menhaden, after oil extraction, are used for pet food or as fertilizer.

Though use of protein-rich fish meal just as fertilizer may appear to be wasteful, there is a long tradition of using menhaden for that purpose. According to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA):1

Native Americans in precolonial America called the fish ‘munnawhatteaug,' which means ‘fertilizer.'
Menhaden are probably the fish that the indigenous tribes urged the Pilgrims to plant along with their corn as fertilizer.
Atlantic menhaden
Atlantic menhaden
Source: US Fish and Wildlife Service

Factories to "reduce" menhaden to oil and protein leftovers were once common from Maine to Florida, as well as on the Gulf Coast. After the Civil War, Elijah Reed moved from Maine to Old Point Comfort, then to Cockrell's Creek in 1874. Many small fish processing operations were located on multiple points of land on the western edge of the Chesapeake Bay, originally cooking menhaden in kettles and skimming off the oil.

All have disappeared now except for the Omega Protein factory in at Reedville in Northumberland County, where a fish reduction facility has operated continuously since 1878. The only fish refinery left on the East Coast still cooks menhaden to separate it into fish oil (used for Omega-3 diet supplements) and protein for animal meal.2

Today, menhaden stocks are dramatically reduced, primarily due to overharvesting.

Fish processing is an industrial operation. Though the historical level of pollution has been reduced, waste management is still a challenge. In 2013, a Federal judge fined the company $5.5 million - plus a $2 million company "donation" for Chesapeake Bay restoration projects - because waste disposal from menhaden processing had violated the Clean Water Act. Omega Protein was allowed to dump "bail water" from its fishing vessels, which included fish scales, fins and fish excrement, more than three miles from the coast into the Atlantic Ocean. Instead, the bail water was dumped into the Chesapeake Bay, increasing the bay's excessive amount of nutrients such as nitrogen. (In addition, Omega Protein also was fined for modifying its fishing vessels to dump oily bilge water illegally).3

Omega Protein dumped bail water illegally into the Chesapeake Bay, rather than haul it beyond the three-mile limit into the Atlantic Ocean
Omega Protein dumped "bail water" illegally into the Chesapeake Bay, rather than haul it beyond the three-mile limit into the Atlantic Ocean

The company hires 7-10 catch boats to surround the menhaden schools with nets, "setting" overtop the schools of fish in the Chesapeake Bay or in the Atlantic Ocean, then load the fish onto the boats. Virginia still permits commercial harvest within the state waters, up to three miles from the coast. Beyond the three mile limit to the edge of the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ) 200 miles offshore, the Federal government controls natural resources.

Omega Protein, the last remaining commercial menhaden fishing operation on the Atlantic Coast, harvests 80% of the menhaden that are caught. Bait fishermen catch the remaining 20%, to use in crab pots or put on hooks to catch striped bass. Conservationists regularly battle with Omega Protein, petitioning the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to reduce the permitted harvest so menhaden populations can recover. In 2011 the commission reduced the acceptable harvest level to leave 30 percent of the adult population to spawn annually, as opposed to 8 percent at the time.4

Menhaden are born in the Atlantic Ocean, especially offshore of Cape Lookout, North Carolina between December-February. Larvae are carried by wind-blown currents into the Chesapeake Bay (and other estuaries along the Atlantic Ocean coastline) after a few months. In the estuaries the larval menhaden grow, metamorphose into filter-feeding juveniles (losing teeth in the process), then assemble into dense schools. From August through November, they migrate back to the ocean and overwinter off the North Carolina coast. In following years, adults migrate each summer as far north as the Massachusetts/Maine coast and in winter down to North Carolina coast, maturing after 2-3 years.5

As described by the Virginia Institute of Marine Science:6

Ecology & Life History

Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) are small (maximum length = 15 inches), schooling fish related to herring, shad, and sardines. Menhaden consume large quantities of phytoplankton and zooplankton, and are themselves a favorite food of striped bass, bluefish, sea trout, tunas, sharks, and sea birds. The species inhabits near-shore waters along the Atlantic seaboard from Nova Scotia southward to central Florida.

Menhaden spawn in the ocean, in shelf waters off Chesapeake Bay from March to May, and again in September and October. The young menhaden drift with currents until they reach a coastal inlet, then work upstream to live for the summer. Larvae use brackish and fresh water inlets and estuaries as nursery areas, where they metamorphose into juveniles and grow rapidly. Menhaden are common in all salinities of Chesapeake Bay during the spring, summer, and fall, swimming in large schools near the water's surface.

Young-of-the-year menhaden leave Chesapeake Bay in late fall and join schools in southward migration. During the fall and early winter, most menhaden migrate south to deeper waters off the North Carolina capes, where they remain until March and early April.

Summer die-offs of large numbers of Atlantic menhaden are common in Chesapeake Bay, mostly associated with episodes of low dissolved oxygen (i.e., dead zones) in Bay waters.

Status of the Menhaden Fishery

Menhaden support one of the most commercially important fisheries along the Atlantic Coast, providing fish meal, fish oil, and bait for other fisheries. More pounds of menhaden are landed each year than any other fish in the United States, with coast-wide landings ranging from 300,000 to 400,000 metric tons since the mid-1970s. Since 1980, this fishery has accounted for almost 40% of total annual Atlantic Coast landings by weight. Most of the catch is made by purse seine for the reduction fishery (in which menhaden are "reduced" to fish meal and oil).
catching menhaden in a purse net, after surrounding a school
catching menhaden in a purse net, after surrounding a school
Source: Omega Protein, Shareholder Presentation (May 17, 2011)

Following industry consolidation and closure of most state waters to the reduction fishery in the 1980s and early 1990s, more than half of the total menhaden harvest has shifted to Chesapeake Bay. Although the most recent coast-wide stock assessment by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) indicates that the coast-wide menhaden stock is not over-fished, recreational fishing interests and some conservation groups have expressed concern that there could be negative effects of concentrated harvest in Chesapeake Bay.

One concern is that current levels of menhaden removals may lead to "localized depletion" of the stock within Chesapeake Bay, which could undermine menhaden's important ecological role as a principal prey species and filter feeder in Bay waters.

A related concern is that low recruitment of menhaden may be affecting the species' ability to serve as a major food source for other fish. Many recreational anglers contend that the poor nutritional condition of striped bass in Chesapeake Bay in recent years is linked to insufficient forage (menhaden) supply. Although menhaden stock biomass is currently high, it is likely to decline in the next few years due to low recruitment. Studies indicate that environmental conditions are likely more important than the size of spawning stock in determining reproductive success, although there is a weak spawner-recruit relationship.

Menhaden are not a threatened or endangered species. There are plenty in the Atlantic Ocean, but conservationists fear that over-fishing could result in "ecological depletion" in the Chesapeake Bay. In addition to ecological concerns, one key debate is between commercial vs. recreational users: does commercial harvest of menhaden reduce the number of rockfish that can be caught by recreational anglers?

In Virginia, menhaden is the only species where the General Assembly itself manages harvest seasons and limits. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission demonstrated its ability to reject arguments regarding the costs of limiting harvests, and focus on long-term economic recovery of a species, when it banned the winter dredge fishery for blue crabs. However, the General Assembly of Virginia ensured that the Virginia Marine Resources Commission would not have the option to limit the catch of menhaden, except with the approval of the General Assembly.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) is the interstate organization that sets harvest limits on menhaden. The ASMFC was created through an interstate compact ratified by Congress in 1942. It manages over 20 species of migratory fish in state waters along the Atlantic Ocean shoreline, restraining the temptation of one state to overharvest a species while other states tried to conserve it.

The power of that commission to regulate fish harvests from coastal waters was strengthened by later legislation, including the Atlantic Coastal Fisheries Cooperative Management Act in 1993. The Secretary of Commerce was authorized to block a state from fishing within the waters of the noncomplying State, asserting authority over state waters within three miles of the shoreline. (ASMFC has no authority over the Exclusive Economic Zone.)

The first ASMFC management plan for menhaden was approved in 1981. In 2005, the commission amended its Interstate Fishery Management Plan for Atlantic Menhaden and established a limit on the menhaden catch in the Chesapeake Bay - waters under the control of Virginia and Maryland.

The Virginia General Assembly refused to pass legislation to implement that limit, and in 2006 the state's Attorney General wrote an opinion that the interstate commission had exceeded its legal authority. Despite that opinion, Omega Protein agreed to comply voluntarily with the limit after the commission approved it again in 2006.7

In 2009, the ASMFC Menhaden Technical Committee updated its computer model and discovered that the old version had seriously miscalculated the status of the menhaden population. In 2011, the ASMFC proposed reducing the total allowable catch (TAC) of menhaden within the Chesapeake Bay, and also limiting the menhaden harvest in the waters of the Atlantic Ocean. The commission determined that reducing both the commercial harvest, and the harvest for bait fish (including in New England lobster traps), would help to increase the population of mature adults.

The new fishing mortality target was set at no more than 30% of the Maximum Spawning Potential, up from the 8% assumption that guided the 2006 limits. The proposal from the Virginia representative to set the limit at 20% of the Maximum Spawning Potential was rejected. By preserving essentially 30% of the fish rather than 8% or 20%, the wild fish population could recover faster - but harvests would have to be reduced substantially.8

for decades, menhaden have been over-fished and populations have plummeted as a result
for decades, menhaden have been over-fished and populations have plummeted as a result
Source: Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Atlantic Menhaden - 2012 stock assessment

Striped bass anglers and conservationists supported the change, based on concerns that the menhaden population was so low that striped bass were starving in the bay. Omega Protein was opposed, and it was unclear if Virginia would comply with that new limit. The State Senator representing the Reedville area proposed Virginia should withdraw from the commission, though the state would still be obliged to comply with the new limit.9

The worst-case scenario was that the Secretary of Commerce would react to Virginia's failure to control overfishing, and order a complete ban on menhaden fishing within both Virginia and Federal waters off the Virginia coast. That action would trigger a legal test of the constitutional authority of the ASMFC, delaying or potentially blocking the implementation of a fishing mortality target set by the ASMFC.

Virginia's 2013 General Assembly did agree to comply with the ASMFC reduction for two years, even though Omega Protein announced that a reduction would trigger elimination of one of the vessels in its fishing fleet. The company claimed the lower limit would eliminate $20 million/year in revenues, so Omega Protein would have to cut expenses.10

For the 2013 season, Omega Protein announced plans to reduce on-land employment by 10 workers and on-water employment by 30 workers. The company cut back to a seven-ship fleet, down from nine ships in 2011 and eight in 2012. The 2013 fleet included two ships that previously serviced oil rigs in the Gulf of Mexico, and were reconditioned for Virginia in order to store fish in refrigerated tanks and to meet Coast Guard requirements for bilge water discharge.11

In 2015, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission again revised its assessment of the menhaden population. The commission recalculated the biomass, the total number of pounds of menhaden swimming in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic Ocean. It concluded that some menhaden reproduced in their second year, not just after three years. In addition, older fish in the northern part of the range were larger than had been calculated previously, so total biomass was not below average for the last decade, the population was healthy, and menhaden were not over-fished.

The results triggered proposals to increase the menhaden harvest, especially for the fishermen who caught the fish to use as bait for other species such as rockfish. The counter-argument advanced by some conservationists was that the number of small menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay was still insufficient to support other species as a food source, and that an assessment of the biomass of a single species needed to be expanded to consider the ecological role of menhaden.12

The General Assembly still retains authority over menhaden harvest levels in Virginia. Any limits beyond those imposed by the ASMFC in 2012, such as a complete ban on commercial harvest in the state waters within the three-mile zone, would require approval by the Virginia legislature.

the Atlantic Menhaden quota (in pounds) for Virginia, as determined by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2012, dwarfed the allocation for other states
the Atlantic Menhaden quota (in pounds) for Virginia, as determined by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2012, dwarfed the allocation for other states
Source: data from Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission news release, First Year of Atlantic Menhaden Amendment 2 Implementation Yields Positive Results (May 16, 2014)


because menhaden travel in schools, purse seines were used to catch menhaden even before steam-powered vessels were common
because menhaden travel in schools, purse seines were used to catch menhaden even before steam-powered vessels were common
Source: A History of the Menhaden (1880), (Figure 12)


1. "Menhaden," National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), (last checked December 3, 2011)
2. "Menhaden Fish Industry," Virginia Farming video, November 7, 2014,; "Reedville & Museum History," Reedville Fisherman's Museum, (last checked March 30, 2015)
3. "Omega Protein fined $7.5 million for polluting Chesapeake Bay," Daily News (Newport News), June 4, 2013,,0,4827741.story; "Omega Protein assessed $5.5M in U.S. penalties," The Virginian-Pilot, June 5, 2013, (last checked June 5, 2013)
4. "Menhaden harvest limit sharply cut by fisheries commission," Washington Post, November 9, 2011, (last checked December 2, 2012)
5. S. Gordon Rogers, Michael J. Van Den Avyle, "Species Profiles: Life Histories and Environmental Requirements of Coastal Fishes and Invertebrates (South Atlantic) - Atlantic Menhaden," US Fish and Wildlife Service, FWS OBS-82111.11, October 1983, (last checked April 8, 2013)
6. "Menhaden Background," Virginia Institute of Marine Science, (last checked December 3, 2011)
7. "State Of Our Bay: A Fish Called Menhaden," Chesapeake Bay Magazine, October 2006,; Office of Attorney General, Commonwealth of Virginia, "Fisheries And Habitat Of The Tidal Waters: Compacts And Joint Laws With Other States – Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Compact," Opinion No. 06-002, January 31, 2006, (last checked June 19, 2014)
8. Alison Fairbrother, "A Fish Story," Washington Monthly, May/June 2012, (last checked June 19, 2014)
9. Beau Beasley, "Should Virginia Secede from the Menhaden Union?," Southern Maryland Online, January 24, 2012,; "ASMFC votes to reduce commercial menhaden landings," Bay Journal, December 1, 2011, (last checked April 8, 2013)
10. "Atlantic fisheries commission limits menhaden catch," Washington Post, December 14, 2012,; "Delegates pass bill to reduce menhaden harvest; 25 jobs at risk," Newport News Daily News, January 29, 2013,; "Industry-Wide Reductions Begin as Menhaden Cap Becomes Law," Saving Menhaden Fisheries, March 6, 2013, (last checked April 8, 2013)
11. "Omega reconstitutes Reedville fleet, cuts workers," Newport News Daily Press, May 23, 2013,,0,1136049.story (last checked May 26, 2013)
12. "New review of menhaden stock reveals population is in good shape," Bay Journal, February 23, 2015, (last checked March 5, 2015)

factories to reduce Atlantic menhaden to oil and protein scrap were once located along the entire coastline
factories to "reduce" Atlantic menhaden to oil and protein scrap were once located along the entire coastline
Source: A History of the Menhaden (1880), (Figure 12)

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