Purse seining for menhaden circa 1968 | NOAA photo
Purse seining for menhaden circa 1968 | NOAA photo

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.”

An 1877 drawing of menhaden purse seiners in the Peconic Bay | Courtesy University of Washington Freshwater and Marine Image Bank
An 1877 drawing of menhaden purse seiners in the Peconic Bay | Courtesy University of Washington Freshwater and Marine Image Bank

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.”

Schools of bunker were chased by bluefish onto the shores of Flanders Bay in May, 2008.
Schools of bunker were chased by bluefish onto the shores of Flanders Bay in May, 2008. This year, they have been scarce in the bays.

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.”

Beth Young
Beth Young is an award-winning local journalist who has been covering the East End since the 1990s. She began her career at the Sag Harbor Express and, after receiving her Masters from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism, has reported for the Southampton Press, the East Hampton Press and the Times/Review Media Group. She founded the East End Beacon website in 2013, and a print edition in 2017. Beth was born and raised on the North Fork. In her spare time, she tinkers with bicycles, tries not to drown in the Peconic Bay and hopes to grow the perfect tomato. You can send her a message at editor@eastendbeacon.com

12 thoughts on “Where have all the menhaden gone?

  1. Protecting bait fish like the Moss Bunker and other species lower on the food chain is essential to an overall healthy ecosystem.

  2. BTW; I was snorkeling last week just west of Goldsmith’s Inlet on LI sound and observed some schools of young menhaden just off the beach. I hope this is a good sign. I know the Inlet is important for young Winter Flounder maybe it’s important for the Bunker as well.

  3. Beth , I was sorry to see you perpetuate the myth that menhaden improve water quality. The science says otherwise. Check out: Friedland et al 2011, Journal of Coastal Research 27(6): 1148-1156. In summary, they say: “…these results suggest that adult menhaden play a minimal role in providing ecosystem filtration and may actually promote primary production [your algae blooms] through the removal of zooplankton grazers and the excretion of nutrients”.

    1. Hi, Joe, thank you for your note. From what I’ve seen, this is the only study out there that suggests such a thing. I can only seem to access the abstract, however, and I would be interested to see what the results were for the juvenile menhaden. What’s your take on Sara Gottlieb’s work?

  4. B – See Lynch et al. 2011, North Amer. Journal of Fisheries Mgmt 31:70-78; they reached similar conclusions to those of Friedland et al. Its been many yrs since I read Gottlieb’s paper. My recollections are that she over-exaggerated the fishery’s harvest/dependence on age-0 fish; also fish leaving Chesapeake Bay removed/exported only about 6% of available nitrogen. Since the 90s, the fishery has avoided catching “peanuts” [age-0s]; they have little oil yield, although they do filter more phytoplankters than the adults. Ches Bay is the major nursery for age-0 menhaden. LIS and southern New England are ancillary nursery grounds; recruitment of young is very episodic there – some yrs are good, some poor, but with climate change, who knows….J

  5. I worked as a marketing manager @ Rust-Oleum in the old days, before water-based formulations became prominent even in the industrial coatings sector. Menhaden oil was still touted then as the key ingredient in our premier rust-preventive primer–the product on which the company was built.

    Special customers received a gift book: “Born O’ the Sea,” a biography of “Captain Bob” Fergusson which was self-published, but reasonably competent & informative. Though my copy’s long lost, I recall that the details of how the Captain discovered the protective qualities of fish oil–& persevered until he had a paint that worked, but didn’t stink–were fascinating.

  6. Hi Larry, Fish oil without stink is like a day without sunshine. That’s no BUNK-ER CHUM.
    Oops, I get a PU out of a PUN.

  7. I have fished for striped bass in many of the rivers in Virginia that flow into the Chesapeake Bay. I started fishing when I was 17 years old and will be 75 in August.
    I know that if the menhaden are over netted in the bay and the food supply for the striped bass and other fish that feed on them will leave the Bay. They will seek other areas where their food supply will supply their need.
    We must get our state government to lower the quota of the amount of menhaden that may be netted.
    Is there an organization I can join that is working toward that goal.

  8. The ASMFC management is corrupted by a single corporation in Virginia taking near 85% of menhaden landed. They spread lots of money around. They employ former NMFS career menhaden managers when they retire to lobby and attend tech. And assessment committees. The stock is managed with a mathematical model which attempts badly to predict what’s happening in the Atlantic Ocean in regards to the stock. The model can be manipulated and the results predetermined by adjusting inputs until the output is what they are looking for. The stock is now fished down to 1%’of its unfished biomass. Bio 101 = no prey species- =no predators. We are exporting the ground up menhaden to China so they can feed their Telapia ponds on the cheap.
    We are exporting our food web along the east coast for pennies. This is a catastrophic situation and our menhaden dependent predators are disappearing.

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