feeds on menhaden off of Atlantic Beach, New York.
A humpback whale feeds on menhaden off of Atlantic Beach, New York. © Artie Raslich

Stories in New York

The Return of the Most Important Fish in the Sea

Collaborative menhaden management leads to marine life diversity along the Atlantic coast.

Standing on the ocean shores stretching from Maine to Virginia, you may have spotted the incredible sight of breeching whales, dolphins and seals along the coast. Believe it or not, this is in large part due to an oily little fish that often goes unnoticed—the Atlantic menhaden.

Called the most important fish in the sea, menhaden are an essential food source for whales, dolphins, striped bass and seabirds. 

Following years of unregulated fishing, The Nature Conservancy has been working with fishermen, marine scientists, charter boat captains and other partners to rebuild menhaden populations. And the results so far have been astounding. Think: porpoises and dolphins frolicking where they haven’t been seen in decades and the spectacular sight of humpback whales lunging to feed on fish schools along New York City’s coast.

This past year marked a big turning point for this little fish. We worked with a wide group of partners to advocate for support of a bill to protect the menhaden, and thanks to the leadership of New York Assembly Member Steve Englebright and State Senator Todd Kaminsky, this bill was signed into law by Governor Cuomo. 

Why are menhaden called the most important fish in the sea?

Often referred to as “bunker,” the Atlantic menhaden are a forage fish, and they play a critical role in the marine ecosystem. Marine life—dolphins, whales and many kinds of fish—need menhaden to keep their bellies full. The main reason whales have returned to New York Harbor is because menhaden are back, after being scarce for decades. 

Thanks to the return of menhaden, our local whale and dolphin populations are rebounding. That’s one of the reasons why you may have heard of whales recently making appearances in the Hudson. Local businesses, from whale watching to sport fishing, are also experiencing a resurgence thanks to menhaden. Until recently, the menhaden population in New York waters had been too low to attract the attention of large fishing boats, but that is no longer true. This is why the new legislation is so important. 

Whales have returned to New York! Help us protect them.
Whale near Long Island Whales have returned to New York! Help us protect them. © Great South Bay Images

Why are menhaden harvested?

Since it’s an incredibly oily fish, you’re unlikely to see menhaden on restaurant menus anytime soon. But people have been harvesting it since the American Revolution. Back then, it was used on farms as fertilizer. Today, the Atlantic menhaden fishery is the largest fishery on the United States’ east coast. While roughly 25 percent is used as bait to catch lobsters, crabs and other seafood, the lion’s share of the nearly half a billion-pound coast-wide catch is processed into fish oil supplements and food for livestock, fish aquaculture and pets.

What led to the resurgence of the Atlantic menhaden?

One key factor was better regulation. Following years of unregulated fishing, a community of fishermen, scientists and conservation advocates worked diligently to limit menhaden harvest with the goal of rebuilding their numbers. Eventually, their efforts paid off, and menhaden started to return to New York waters. Fishermen and women expected this would be a boon to other fisheries–like striped bass and bluefish–and they were right.

It’s also providing New Yorkers with a glimpse of what Long Island’s coast might have been like back in the day. Think: coastal sharks crushing schools of menhaden in the surf, the deafening clatter of seabirds picking fish from above while predatory fish pursue menhaden from below, porpoises and dolphins frolicking where they haven’t been seen in decades. For many, the most spectacular sight is humpback whales lunging to feed on schools of menhaden right off Long Island beaches and New York City’s coast.

on menhaden off of East Hampton, New York.
A humpback whale feeds on menhaden off of East Hampton, New York. © Sutton Lynch

Protecting Menhaden Beyond New York

“Our work to protect healthy Atlantic foodwebs is not yet done. Increasing demand for seafood combined with impacts of a changing climate and expansion of offshore renewable energy development make marine protection along New York and the greater Atlantic coast a top priority,” says Carl LoBue, New York Oceans Program Director. “We’re working to modernize and advance science and management aimed at protecting and restoring marine life and habitats within and beyond the boundaries of New York State.”

Menhaden conservation is a coast-wide issue. States outside of New York play an important role in the management of this species. For example, over 70 percent of the total allowable coast-wide catch of menhaden is allocated to the state of Virginia, making what happens in the state critical for conservation efforts.

Acknowledging the significance of this collaboration, fifteen states along the Atlantic coast work together through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an important group that sets the rules on fishing practices and management. The Nature Conservancy is working with the Commission to ensure that the menhaden population is being properly protected as a vital food source for marine life and for fishing operations along the entire coast. 

“In Virginia, important legislation has passed both the House and Senate that would transfer management authority of menhaden from the General Assembly to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC),” says Zachary Sheldon, Virginia Government Relations Associate. “Once signed by the governor, VMRC will be able to adopt regulations in line with the coastwide management plan for the fishery, safeguarding menhaden in the nation’s largest estuary with ramifications for the food web along the entire coast.”

Together with your support, we’re increasing protection for the menhaden and leading efforts to restore this vital marine species within and beyond New York. 

Foraging the High Seas Called the most important fish in the sea, this small fish is a key food source for wildlife like dolphins and whales. Over the next few years, we'll be advocating for additional coast-wide menhaden management in New York and beyond.