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Living Sanibel: Gulf menhaden

By Staff | Feb 18, 2015

A heavily sought-after species, the Gulf menhaden, along with two close relatives, the yellowfin and Atlantic menhaden, account for 40 percent of all commercial fish harvested in the U.S. In the Gulf of Mexico, especially off of Texas and Louisiana, Gulf menhaden harvests average 400 to 600 kilotons a year. You won’t find this fish listed on any menu, however, as it is a bony, oily fish with soft and unpalatable flesh. It is typically ground up into a high-protein feed for chicken, pigs, and cattle. Anyone who eats meat in the U.S. is indirectly eating reprocessed menhaden.

In his book “The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America,” published in 2007, H. Bruce Franklin argues that the commercial over-harvesting of menhaden along the Atlantic and in the Gulf dramatically impacts the birds, marine mammals, and fish that once relied upon these plentiful filter feeders for sustenance. Franklin believes that these continued harvests will ultimately cause the collapse of the menhaden, as well as many other fisheries.

Until the net ban went into effect in 1994, the Gulf menhaden was the absolute favorite local bait for catching tarpon. Anglers and guides would buy fresh or frozen “bunker” by the hundreds of pounds and chum extensively until the tarpon and shark swarmed around their boats. Recently, since “Living Sanibel” has been published, Gulf menhaden have made quite a comeback and are now quite commonly found in the waters around Sanibel and Captiva islands.

Hopefully this trend will continue and menhaden will once again become one of the most important staple for the Gulf’s larger predatory fishes.

Offshore it is taken by bluefish, Gulf-running redfish, snapper, tarpon, and marine mammals. Because of the menhaden’s size, only the larger seabirds such as boobies and pelicans are capable of eating it.

This is an excerpt from Living Sanibel – A Nature Guide to Sanibel & Captiva Islands by Charles Sobczak. The book is available at all the Island bookstores, Baileys, Jerry’s and your favorite online sites.