Just five years ago, the shores of the Peconic Bays were littered with the carcasses of dead menhaden, driven up on to the beaches by swarms of hungry bluefish running in late spring. Fishermen ran to the shores to pack the small fish into coolers to use as bait, while parents kept their children away from the stench at the shorelines, waiting for weeks until the fish were cleaned up. The fishermen called them “trash fish” and the smell could certainly have passed for that of a garbage dump.
This year, however, menhaden, known colloquially as bunker, are few and far between, leading environmentalists to worry that we’re in danger of losing a crucial link in the ecosystem of the bays. Menhaden serve both as food for commercially caught species and as a vacuum cleaner for the bays, filter feeding out algae that would otherwise bloom out of control.
“Where are the menhaden? No evidence at all this late in the summer of any schools,” said David Berson, who has run the electric boat Glory in Greenport for 15 years and who estimates he’s spent six years of his life in that time on the water in the bay. “The bay looks like hell with too much algae build up; the bunkers used to keep it clean, and keep the blues and stripers and weakfish well fed. Oh that’s right, the menhaden were, and still are being fished into extinction.”
The Peconic Bays had been full of menhaden since before European settlers landed on these shores, and Native Americans taught the first settlers here to use the small, oily fish for food as well as fertilizer for corn. Purse seine boats, which would encircle schools of menhaden with a net that was slowly clutched shut around the fish, plied the bays for generations, though few people today would consider eating menhaden.
Today, the fish are used primarily for livestock meal, pet food, bait and fertilizer and for cosmetics and Omega 3 fish oil supplements, which have become a major health food fad.
“I’m totally disgusted. The bay is being destroyed right in front of us,” said Mr. Berson. “Menhaden is very much a part of the history of Greenport, but the fishery is being devastated. I have not even seen one school this year. Does it matter if the fish are here? It matters to me. It seems there would be obvious consequences of removing them from the food chain.”
There had never been catch limits on Atlantic menhaden until last December, when federal regulators imposed a 20 percent reduction on the amount of the fish that can be caught in the Atlantic States fishery until at least 2014, when a new assessment of the menhaden stock is expected. The efforts are supported by fishermen who fish for larger species, particularly striped bass, which rely on menhaden as a food source.
Mr. Berson isn’t alone on the East End in believing more must be done to protect fish like the menhaden.
The North Fork Environmental Council, based in Mattituck, announced last week that they have joined Herring Alliance, a conservation group looking to protect menhaden and other baitfish.
“After careful consideration, the NFEC has become the sixtieth organization to sign on and support the work of the Herring Alliance. We ask our members and friends to look into the work of this group and support its calls for help,” said NFEC members in an email to supporters July 13. “Simply put, baitfish — species like river and Atlantic herring, and menhaden — are key to supporting the commercial and sport fishing industries. But baitfish stocks are dwindling to critical levels. The NFEC supported the efforts to restore local spawning runs for other key fish like alewife and shad, so this support for the Herring Alliance is a logical next step. If we don’t help manage harvests and restore baitfish stocks, the bounty of our local and regional waters will be at risk.”
The biggest skeptic in the fisheries world has been Omega Protein, the company that runs most of the world’s menhaden fishery. Omega Protein has been banned from fishing in state waters surrounding 13 of the 15 Atlantic states, though they can still fish in outlying federal waters.
“Omega Protein has been fishing these Atlantic waters for a century and no one is more interested in the sustainability of the resource than we are. However, we are disappointed by the ASMFC’s decision to adopt these harvest reductions,” said Bret D. Scholtes, Chief Executive Officer of Omega Protein, in a recent statement to shareholders. “There is significant scientific consensus that the most recent assessment of the Atlantic menhaden stock has a negative bias that underestimates the population. We therefore believe these measures are premature, if not wholly unnecessary.”
In addition to menhaden’s importance as a baitfish, it also serves a crucial role in filtering algae out of the East End’s bays.
“The muddy brown color of the Long Island Sound and the growing dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay are the direct result of inadequate water filtration — a job that was once carried out by menhaden,” says the essayist Paul Greenberg in a 2009 article in The New York Times. “An adult menhaden can rid four to six gallons of water of algae in a minute. Imagine then the water-cleaning capacity of the half-billion menhaden we “reduce” into oil every year.”
Indeed, he said, some, like author H. Bruce Franklin, consider menhaden to be “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.”