For well over a century, one fish has dominated commercial landings (in pounds of fish) every year. Since 1950, among all fish harvested in the United States, annual landings of this one species ranged between one billion and three billion pounds. Yet, you won’t find this fish on any menu.This is the Atlantic menhaden, or bunker (Brevoortia tyrannus), characterized by some as “the most important fish in the sea” because of its role in the marine ecosystem as a “forage fish” and its ecological link between tiny plankton that it feeds on and the wide diversity of predators found at the top of the food chain, including other fish such as striped bass, bluefish and sharks, birds including loons, gannets, bald eagles and osprey, and marine mammals from seals to dolphins to whales.
The term “forage fish” refers to it being an important source of food for other animals. Other forage fish in our area include the sand lance, silversides, anchovy, mackerel, alewife and other herring. They are characterized as being relatively small in size, traveling in large, dense schools, having a high reproductive capacity and a short (less than 10 years) lifespan. They can comprise a significant proportion of the diet of other important food and game fish; menhaden makes up 30 percent of the striped bass’ diet.
Menhaden have an unusual feeding strategy. They consume phytoplankton as young of the year and zooplankton as they mature, filtering it from the water with long, closely set gill rakers that act as nets or sieves. Swimming with its mouth open, plankton-rich water passes over the soft gill filaments, where oxygen and carbon dioxide exchange takes place, and then passes through the hard gill rakers, where food particles are trapped before the water exits by way of the gill openings. Studies have demonstrated that adult menhaden (approximately 12 inches in length) can filter 6-7 gallons of water a minute.
Traveling in large, dense schools so tightly packed together that they are visible from a distance as dark blotches on the water, they move through the sea like a huge aquatic vacuum cleaner. They are so proficient at filtering fine food particles from the water column that, viewed from above, it is very evident which direction they are moving as the water in their wake is crystal clear. Their feeding efficiency enables them to grow quickly, reaching 9-10 inches in length and spawning age in three years’ time.
By some accounts, menhaden harvesting along the eastern seaboard dates back to pre-colonial times when Native Americans used these bony, oil-rich fish to fertilize their gardens. As their soils became depleted of nutrients, colonial farmers eventually followed suit. In the 1800s, as whales became more scarce, menhaden were harvested for their oil and used for lubrication and fuel. The fish scraps were sold as fertilizer and food for livestock. This industry continues to this day with the oil, rich in omega-3 fatty acids, used in the lucrative food supplement industry, while the fish scraps are used in commercial pet foods. Menhaden are also harvested for bait, accounting for a quarter of the annual harvest today.
Managing our marine fish resources today relies on obtaining accurate catch data, estimating population size (Atlantic menhaden are distributed along the entire eastern seaboard from southern Florida to the Gulf of St. Lawrence and considered a distinct population from the Gulf menhaden) and annual recruitment, and developing models that incorporate these and other variables so that sustainable harvest limits can be established. A big variable with this species that surfaces in many management debates is their natural population fluctuation cycles.
Historically, the menhaden fishery managed itself by way of closing processing plants when there were not enough fish in the area to support a commercial enterprise. The last menhaden processing plant operating on eastern Long Island (at Promised Land, Amagansett) shut down in the late 1960s. Was that due to overharvesting? No one can say for sure.
Today, menhaden are managed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) with representatives from the 15 states bordering the eastern seaboard and Chesapeake Bay. New York’s representatives include James Gilmore from the NYSDEC and Emerson Hasbrouck from Cornell Cooperative Extension.
Although the commission has been around since 1942, it didn’t establish limits on menhaden harvest until 2012. In that year, total allowable catch was reduced 25 percent from the 2011 harvest. In the five years since then, many people have noted the significant numbers of menhaden off our shores, and the regular sightings of dolphins and whales feeding on them.
Is this a result of the harvest limits, or another example of this fish’s natural population fluctuations? No one can say for certain, but reports of awesome schools of bunker have been coming in from Jamaica Baykeeper Don Reipe at the west end of the island to Montauk Point and around the north side into our bays and Long Island Sound in the years since.
Two weekends ago, onlookers at Amagansett’s Indian Wells and Atlantic Avenue beaches were treated to an impressive performance by an adult humpback whale and her calf, both catapulting themselves partially out of the water as they rushed a tight school of bunker from below, with mouths agape, sending sprays of fish in every direction and not a few down their respective gullets. Another marine mammal, a lone harbor seal, also drifted by, most likely satiated with a bellyful of bunker.
My colleague at The Southampton Press, Michael Wright, also wrote about the bunker situation in his In The Field column, “More Bunker Means More Of Everything Else,” which appeared in the August 31 edition.
The resurgence of menhaden, whales, dolphins and other bunker-consumers in our nearshore waters prompted a number of organizations and fisheries biologists to lobby the ASMFC to develop a management plan that incorporates the ecological role of menhaden as a forage fish in their models and harvest quotas. In other words, to ensure that harvesting quotas leave enough menhaden for reproducing and for consumption by the fish, marine mammals and birds that depend on them.
The campaign has pitted environmentalists and fisheries biologists against the commercial fishery and other fisheries biologists. And with all the unknowns, variables and assumptions in ecological models of fisheries, there are valid points on both sides of the issue. A decision is set for this November.