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New York City's own Whale Research and Advocacy Organization

"Menhaden" - what's in a name ?

~~The photos posted by our Citizen Scientists to Gotham Whale often are fantastic images of the whales feeding on fish that are literally flying out of their mouths. We are frequently are asked “What kind of fish are those?” They are menhaden, a fish that has been called “the most important fish in the sea”.

Fishermen call them by many common names depending on the local term. “Bunker, pogy, mossbunker, bug-fish, are a few of the common names used throughout their range. They are important because almost every fish that can fit a menhaden in its mouth, eats them wherever and whenever possible. Menhaden are one step above the primary producers, the phytoplankton, and menhaden graze on this microscopic algae much like sheep, cows, and wildebeest graze on the grasslands of the world. Big Fish eat Little Fish! – A natural Law that applies on land and sea. Bluefish and stripers love ‘em. Sharks can’t get enough, and our whales gulp them by the ton. Fishermen often just call them “bait”, since they catch them for bait.

Menhaden feed by swimming through the water with their mouths open, and strain the phyto (algae) and zoo (animal) plankton through gill rakers, filaments that protrude forward from their gills. It is kind of ironic that the menhaden feed in a similar manner as they are eaten by our whales, which, in an analogous method, strain the menhaden through their baleen plates to extract the fish from the water that they gulp in. It is a full circle for these filter feeders - from grazers on the plankton, to whales engulfing thousands of menhaden in one mouthful, from the microscopic to the immense. Our whales are seen eating these adult menhaden that are 12 to 15 inches long. This disproves the common thought that whales eat only small shrimp, called “krill”. The great whales will eat krill, or other small fish that congregate is large tight schools where a single gulp provides the whale with the most nutrition for the effort. Large whales are not good predators of single or scattered prey.

Local fishermen often call menhaden, “bait”, since they use them for catching bluefish and striped bass. When we see tight schools of menhaden, we often say they are “bait balls”, sometime our guests think that this is some kind of bait that we have put into the water to attract the whales. No, noooo, no! That would be illegal and it is only the common term used by the fishermen who will cast into these tight schools to jig the menhaden for bait. Menhaden will not take a hook because they are filter feeders and the fishermen will cast treble hooks without bait into the school and catch the menhaden with a quick snag.

There are so many common terms in maritime use, it is difficult to keep track, especially for landlubbers. In the world of natural history, that has been solved by the use of scientific nomenclature. Each organism has a unique name, given by the scientist who describes the original species. Of course scientists can disagree, and fistfights may happen between “lumpers and splitters”, but only a single name is considered “valid” by the panel that reviews the terminology. In the case of the menhaden, the valid name is Brevoortia tyrannus - Genus, Brevoortia, species, tyrannus. That name is used worldwide, in any language, when discussing menhaden, no matter what common name is used. Scientific names are often descriptive of the species, or to honor an individual, often another scientist. (it is not appropriate to name a species after yourself)

The menhaden was first described by B.H. Latrobe who honored another ichthyologist, J. Carson Brevoort with the Genus name, Brevoortia. The species name, tryannus, is a strange but interesting history. The menhaden is the least tyrannical animal imaginable. It swims through the ocean feeding on algae, and is as aggressive as sheep. Why would Mr. Latrobe use the Latin for tyrant to describe such a fish? In southern waters, menhaden are called “bug-fish”, because a parasitic crustacean that he named, Oniscus praegustitator , is commonly found in the mouth of the menhaden. This bug like creature sits in the mouth and seemingly “tastes” the food before it is consumed by the menhaden. Praegustitator is derived from the praegustitatores who were food tasters, forced by the Roman emperors to taste all food prepared for them as a precaution against poisoning. So a tyrant with a royal food taster.....It all makes sense now. (note: In scientific writing Genus and species is alway in italics - Genus - capitalized, species - lower case)

And what about “menhaden”? Where did that come from? The Native American word Munnawatteaug means “that which manures”. Not a very pleasant heritage for a name, but it was, and is, important for agriculture. The name “pogy” also has Native American roots, coming from a different tribe but meaning the same: “that which manures”. This is likely the fish that Squanto taught the Pilgrims to bury next to freshly planted corn seeds as fertilizer. This trick likely saved the Pilgrims and gave them the harvest for the first Thanksgiving. Humans do not directly eat menhaden, but they are fished in great quantities for commercial fertilizer and omega3 fish oil.