Of Menhaden, Stripers Threshers and Whales

What goes down in May at ASMFC could determine a lot

Big Striper with a herring hanging out of its mouth - photo by Capt. John McMurray

Big Striper with a bunker hanging out of its mouth – photo by Capt. John McMurray

Pay attention… Because if you fish for stripers this is pretty darn important.

On May 5, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASFMC) – that consortium of states that manages striped bass, weakfish, winter flounder, tautog etc (pretty much everything that’s tanking) – will make critical decisions on menhaden (aka bunker). What road they choose to go down will likely determine whether or not we’ll continue to see those massive bunker schools we’ve seen in the last few years, and whether they will recover their abundance and range from Maine to Florida.

If you fish on the South Shore of Long Island, or Northern and Central New Jersey, you know what I’m talking about. Huge, and I mean HUGE, schools of adult bunker…. I’m talking about the big ones. The 8 to 10inchers. Pods sometimes stretching from inlet to inlet on the South Shore of Long Island. And of course, sometimes with them, big f’n striped bass. In fact in the last few years, I’ve seen more 40s, even 50s under these bunker schools in the space of a couple of weeks than I’ve seen in my life up to this point. Let me be clear though, there aren’t near as many stripers around as their used to be, but those remaining fish, generally those that were spawned in and prior to 2003, seem to be exclusively on these bunker schools.


Bass blitzing bunker – photo by Capt, John McMurray

It’s pretty damn cool when you come up on one of these dense pods and a dozen or so bunker spray out of the water right before you, while big bass try and gobble them up from below… Throw a big pencil-popper in there and the bass often absolutely smash it. There’ve been plenty of times where we’ve see fish in the 40-pound class leap completely out of the water in pursuit. Cool stuff man. The kinda thing that makes you go “WHOA!”

But it’s not even just stripers. We discovered a few years ago after just about getting spooled, that good numbers of thresher sharks had come inshore to feed on the abundant baitfish. How did I know for sure? We stuck one that leapt completely out of the water maybe thirty feet from us. And this was a BIG fish. Probably 3 or 400 pounds. The presence of such bunker schools, for better or worse, has created a new inshore fishery for threshers. It seems like during the last several years, at least once a year someone weighs in a fish in the 500-pound class, taken from Western Long Island or off Rockaway, usually in 40’ of water or less.   And get this: Last year there was at least one juvenile Great White shark caught and released off of the Rockaways under the bunker schools, well within sight of the beach. And rumors were abound about more. Check it out: Video.

Happy Bunker 2 edited

A school of happy bunker – Photo by Capt. John McMurray

Perhaps most extraordinary is the recent presences of whales. Humpbacks and finbacks are more or less invading the South Shore of Long Island during late spring and early summer, when menhaden are most abundant. Last year they stuck around well though November. We had several instances where large whales had come up head first, scary close to the boat, with mouths agape, menhaden spraying out the sides. Again, check it out: Video. Cool stuff right?

The point of all of this is yeah, there’s been a lot of bunker around, and it’s brought in extraordinary diversity and numbers of predators. It’s without-a-doubt benefiting businesses like mine, and even sprouting new ones (e.g. whale watching outfits).  This is a good thing…   That’s why this article written by the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition (which “conducts media and public outreach on behalf of the menhaden industry”) left me scratching my head: Coast-wide sightings of large schools of Atlantic menhaden support 2014 stock assessment methods, findings.

It pretty much confirms everything I’ve just said. Lots of menhaden around, and predators and people are benefiting. But then seems to make the case that this is a reason to increase harvest. Uhm… WHAT?!

A new Atlantic menhaden stock assessment was completed in 2014 and released earlier this year. That assessment does indeed indicate an increase among fish in the oldest age classes, with more large adults than in previous estimates. Certainly not surprising, as it pretty much jives with what we’re all seeing in the water, at least in my neck of the woods. But the assessment also confirms that abundance of menhaden – the total numbers of fish – remains near historic lows, and that “recruitment” (the number of fish surviving past 1 year) isn’t great, which is bad news for the Chesapeake Bay. In fact the total numbers of menhaden actually declined from an estimated 35 billion fish in 2010, when they did the last benchmark assessment, to 13 billion in 2013, the last year we have data for.

This also jives with what a lot of us are seeing out on the water. Where are all the peanuts… the juvies… the small silver-dollar sized bunker? I mean those things used to be a solid source of fall-run stripers. Those large volume peanut runs are gone man.   Yeah, we had one good year of them in 2012 before Sandy hit, but not much for maybe a half dozen years before, and certainly not after.   So yes, there may be a good amount of large adult bunker, but overall menhaden numbers don’t seem to be increasing.

Depending on how you read it though, the new stock assessment does seem to paint a nice picture. And I’m not arguing that this recent abundance of adult menhaden in my neck of the woods isn’t awesome. But it’s important here to understand that the assessment addresses only the species’ ability to sustain harvest and avoid depletion. What it doesn’t address is its capacity to provide adequate forage for striped bass, bluefish, whales, dolphin, birds, and everything else that eats bunker within their historic range. This sort of single-species stock assessment leaves a lot of questions unanswered.

Yet the menhaden industry seems to want everyone to believe that because of the recent abundance of adult menhaden in the northern part of their range, there’s no need for regulation… and there never was. Really?

This might carry a tiny bit of weight if it weren’t coming from people who make a great deal of money from slaughtering hundreds of thousands of tons of the bait fish each year, so they can reduce it down to fish meal and sell it to pig farmers and aquaculture entrepreneurs among others.

If anything, the recent abundance indicates we need to stick to our guns… [I mean maybe, just maybe, reduced fishing pressure is having positive effects on growth in the menhaden population, right?]   Sure the increase among those older larger menhaden likely has a lot to do with environmental conditions which allowed for good survivability, but to disregard the general reduction in fishing mortality over the last decade or the conservation measures implemented in 2013? Certainly this had something to do with recent adult menhaden abundance. And I’d expect such a trends to continue if managers don’t do something stupid.

But they very well may next month… The stock assessment could give managers cover to increase harvest, and that would suck… For all of us! Or, they could go a different direction.

In 2001, ASFMC’s first amendment for menhaden included this objective: “Protect and maintain the important ecological role Atlantic menhaden play along the coast.”   And the new stock assessment’s peer review strongly encourages managers to define reference points that reflect a broader ecological perspective. The technical committee has even summarized some options and the expert peer reviewers gave these approaches the thumbs up. There seems to be plenty of consensus that this is the way we need to go. Why is there even a debate?

Well, because some states are suffering from a quota shortage. That’s because Virginia gets F’n 85% of the available quota, since they host that large Omega Protein menhaden reduction plant in Reedville.

Let’s be clear about something. Because the state-by-state bunker allocations are so out of whack, the only one that stands to benefit to any significant degree from such a quota increase is VA.

New York has a quota of 206,695 pounds or less than 1% of Virginia’s 318,066,790 pounds. Any shortage we might experience amounts to a rounding error for VA, and any proportional increase would be meaninglessly small for us without reallocation.

Yet, last year Omega Protein’s Ben Landry wrote an article in National Fisherman which included this critique of New York, “…little effort seems to have been made to curtail the state’s menhaden fishery, even as it vastly exceeded the new limits. This resulted in New York fishermen catching more than four times the number of menhaden allowed under their quota.” The balls!

Come on man… Do we really want to give this company more fish to grind up for low-value products? A relatively small quota reallocation, without a catch increase, would address all of the other state’s issues (some of which are facing a bait shortage), not a quota increase!

Listen… to me the new stock assessment and the fairly recent influx of adult bunker in my neck of the woods – which has so obviously brought in extraordinary numbers of predators – argues not for increasing harvest. It argues strongly for managing them with the needs of such predators in mind…. This is not going to be easy for managers to do, but it needs to be done.

It would be just stupid to reverse course at the first sign of improvement, especially given lingering concerns about low abundance and recruitment. Yet, on May 5, ASMFC could indeed increase the quota for this year with almost no understanding of the impact on predators like striped bass, whales, threshers etc…   Or they could adopt ecosystem goals and advance responsible management of what author Bruce Franklin called “The Most Important Fish in the Sea”.

As anglers who have benefited from such bunker concentrations, and simply as innate stewards of the sea, we have a responsibility to let commissioners know that increasing the amount of bunker that can be harvested is just a bad idea at this point, and that they should adopt interim Ecological Reference Points (accounting for predator needs) when making decisions about the 2015 quota… and they should initiate an amendment to transition to long-term ecological management. This makes much more sense than just giving the fish away to large corporations who grind them down into what most of us believe is a much less valuable product.

You can do that by sending an email to your state Commissioner here: ASMFC Commissioners. Do it now!

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After obtaining an undergraduate degree in Political Science from Loyola College in Maryland, Captain John McMurray served in the US Coast Guard for four years as a small-boat coxswain and marine-fisheries law enforcement officer. He was then recruited to become the first Executive Director of the Coastal Conservation Association New York. He is currently the Director of Grants Programs at the Norcross Wildlife Foundation in New York. He is the owner and primary operator of “One More Cast” Charters. John is a well known and well published outdoor writer, specializing in fisheries conservation issues. In 2006 John was awarded the Coastal Conservation Association New York Friend of Fisheries Conservation Award.

Posted in Conservation
3 comments on “Of Menhaden, Stripers Threshers and Whales
  1. avatar Wm dunn says:

    Great article. I sent the following e-mail to ASMFC and have shared with my friends. We are currently trying to form a Virginia Saltwater Sportsman’s Association here in Virginia to address issues such as this.

    Please do not allow the menhaden reduction lobby to dupe the ASMFC into thinking that large sightings of Menhaden in the ocean have anything to do with the decimation of Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay menhaden population. Omega must not be allowed to take 85% of the entire coastal menhaden fishery out of the Chesapeake Bay which has made Virginia the slaughterhouse of this filter feeder and forage food supply for many of Virginia’s other commercial and recreational fisheries.

    Thanks in advance for doing the right thing.

  2. avatar Kat Cruickshank says:

    Great article. What you said about menhaden could just as easily apply to our Pacific herring stocks here in B.C., where the “management” policy supports a commercial seine fishery that targets pre-spawn herring, strips the egg mass, and sells the roe to Japan. We have had Native protests in most fishery areas, and a successful blockade shut down the commercial roe herring fishery on the northwest coast of BC this year.

    These short-sighted, money-grubbing approaches to management of “keystone” fish species need to stop in all our oceans.

  3. avatar Marty Smith says:

    Long winded and possibly a little disorganized/ can you sayADHD?/ but you have to start somewhere!!!

    I am a lifelong NH resident except for my military service stationed in other parts of our country and overseas and a recreational angler all my life. I recently read an article about our bunker or menhaden and looked at the 600 page report associated with that. Did I read it all ? No. Did I understand it all ? No. I am fairly sure w/o a degree in marine biology or wildlife management or even accounting I would not be able to. I can only give you my perspective as a concerned citizen , recreational angler , father and grandfather.

    HELP!! We as a nation and as a community of fisherman have accomplished some great things especially in the freshwater fishing and environmental areas. Saltwater? In my possibly uninformed but personal observations we have failed and are failing! I have read about our nations history from past stories seen the abundance of life that was there. I do not and cannot tell you why it has become so less dense. I am sure a large variety of reasons but to compare with say the wildlife population it is managed to what the environment can support NOT what can support the commercial or recreational fishing industry. A view point that some may see as extreme but possibly an ideal in mind as opposed to the present one that is influenced by the interests of too many industries and political pressures. I try to think globally and act locally and support indigenous efforts either financially or physically. If there is anything I can do to help you please let me know.

    Thank you for your time and good intentions.
    Marty Smith

    Following quote from article I would tend to lean towards authors opinion.

    QUOTE and see from As anglers who have benefited from such bunker concentrations, and simply as innate stewards of the sea, we have a responsibility to let commissioners know that increasing the amount of bunker that can be harvested is just a bad idea at this point, and that they should adopt interim Ecological Reference Points (accounting for predator needs) when making decisions about the 2015 quota… and they should initiate an amendment to transition to long-term ecological management. This makes much more sense than just giving the fish away to large corporations who grind them down into what most of us believe is a much less valuable product.UNQUOTE

    From a layman’s viewpoint the Virginia allotment of bunker is a travesty of our government and our environment. This is the kind of rule bending that really shows the power of special interest and not that of the people. I hope my grandchildren can grow up in a society that will allow them to enjoy our environment as we have.

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