Spring signals menhaden migration into Narragansett Bay

Spring signals menhaden migration into Narragansett Bay

By Brittany Hassell, communications intern

Menhaden are filter feeders, and eat by straining microscopicphytoplankton and zooplankton from the water.

As a coastal estuary, Narragansett Bay is home to an essential fish in the marine ecosystem during the warmer months — the menhaden, also known as “fatback,” “bunker,” and “pogy.” As we move towards warmer weather in the midst of springtime here on the East Coast, schools of menhaden will soon be making their migratory trip to the Bay.

“The most important fish in the sea”

Menhaden can be identified by their silvery tone and a distinct black marking right next to their gills. Part of the herring family, these fish usually grow to reach 12-15 inches in length. Instead of being caught for human consumption, they are caught to be used as bait for other marine life, as livestock feed, and for use in dietary supplements due to their great source of omega-3 oils. These oily fish are filter feeders and eat by straining microscopic phytoplankton and zooplankton from the water. Sitting low on the food chain, menhaden are a great source of food for other commercial fish like striped bass, bluefish, tuna, and cod, as well as other key species and predatory birds. An increased number of commercial and recreational fishing boats, and therefore fishing activity, follow the menhaden to the area in search of other, more sought-after fish.

Narragansett Bay: A Menhaden Management Area

In August 2020, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to increase the protection of the species and to help limit menhaden harvesting. These efforts were made to ensure that the other marine life that feed on Atlantic menhaden continue to thrive, contributing to a healthy ecosystem. For years prior, Save The Bay had teamed up with the Rhode Island Saltwater Anglers Association and the Audubon Society of Rhode Island to press the issue of protection for this species in Narragansett Bay.

Menhaden swim in large schools close to the water’s surface.

The Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management administers an annual monitoring program to estimate how many menhaden are in the Bay, and ensures the stability of a healthy population within the menhaden management area. In Narragansett Bay, menhaden fishing is allowed only when RIDEM estimates show at least 2,000,000 pounds of menhaden are present. The management area closes again if that number goes below 1,500,000 pounds at any time. RIDEM also limits to how many menhaden can be caught in a single day and regulates fish net size.

A healthy population of menhaden is important for commercial and recreational fishermen and supports a healthy ecosystem within Narragansett Bay and the entire Atlantic fishery.

Read more on our work to protect this important fishery at savebay.org/historic-win-for-the-protection-of-atlantic-menhaden/ and join us in welcoming the menhaden back to the Bay this season!