Atlantic menhaden drawing.
Atlantic menhaden drawing.
Courtesy: Maine Department of Marine Resources

Atlantic Menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus)

Alternate common names: Pogy, Bunker, Fatback
Color: Silvery with lustrous, brassy sides and a dark blue green back. Adults have numerous spots on their sides, located behind a larger, dark shoulder spot.
Size: 12 to 15 inches long.
Habitat: Eelgrass meadows and open water.
Seasonal appearance: Spring, summer, and fall.


Atlantic menhaden is a species of herring with a thick body flattened sideways and a sharp-edged belly. Its large head, almost one third of its total body length, distinguishes it from other fish in the herring family, such as river herring.

Life History and Behavior

The Atlantic menhaden makes extensive seasonal migrations, traveling in schools of hundreds or even thousands. Fish in these schools swim in unison, following a single lead fish. When near the shore, they swim close to the surface, often breaking the surface with their fins and tails. Although Atlantic menhaden spawn in the ocean, eggs, larvae, and juveniles can be found in RI coastal waters during the summer. They are not anadromous fish like similar species, such as the river herring that live in salt water and spawn in fresh water. Instead, Atlantic menhaden migrate into coastal waters to feed on the rich supply of zooplankton present in the summer and fall.

The Atlantic menhaden feeds by opening its mouth and allowing water to pass through its gill openings, which filter microscopic plants and small crustaceans from the water. In calm water, the snouts of the menhaden often come out of the water as they feed on the surface-dwelling plankton. Menhaden are prey to a wide range of large predators, including whales, porpoises, bluefish, striped bass, cod, swordfish, and tuna.

Fishery Note The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission manages the Atlantic menhaden fishery to address the conservation and management needs of coastal populations.

Special Notes

Adapted from The Uncommon Guide to Common Life on Narragansett Bay. Save The Bay, 1998.