The Great East Coast Return To Abundance—Your Help Needed

By Carl Safina

Menhaden in New York waters. ©Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale

One of the greatest recoveries on any coast is happening now. But it is threatened with reversal by one giant fishing corporation. Here’s what is happening and how you can help right now.

Earlier this summer, some friends of ours told us they’d gone to the beach in Amagansett on the east end of Long Island, New York, and right beyond the surf was a humpback whale and a number of dolphins. Because I’ve lived there for 17 years, have been fishing there since the 1980s, and have never seen a whale from shore there—I can tell you that what our friends reported is definitely not typical.

On the other hand, I’ve never seen so many schools of the herring-family fish called menhaden as I’d been seeing. So to check out the report of the whale and dolphins, my wife, Patricia, and I went to the surf the next morning. It was a beautiful flat ocean, and sure enough it was dotted by many dark-purple streaks, each streak representing many thousands of the foot-long fish packed into tight schools. And yes, one sweep of the binoculars revealed some bottlenose dolphin fins glinting in the early light. No whale—yet.

Dark streaks indicate schools of many thousands of menhaden. ©Carl Safina

We headed out in our boat a little later, and marveled as school upon school swam along in the near-shore ocean. And then, yes, we saw a humpback whale less than half a mile from the beach. I’d never seen a whale there before.

The next week I went fishing in an area that the local whale-watching boat used to refer to as “the dead sea” for its total lack of whales and dolphins. I’d certainly never seen a whale there, either. Well, this time I saw a blow, followed by a humpback whale’s flukes. It didn’t take long—thanks to one particular whale who hurled their bulk into the sky several times—to realize that, 1) there were at least four whales in the “dead sea”, 2) the “dead sea” was alive with menhaden schools.

But my most important realization was this: This isn’t the ocean I’ve known all my life. This is a new and improved, revitalized coast, returning to abundance, where everything has plenty to eat and big things linger all summer getting fat and staying relaxed. Whales are spending summers where no one remembers seeing them before; fish eating birds are doing better than anyone can remember, sharks are rebounding along the East Coast as nowhere else in the world, and high-value fish such as striped bass and bluefish have plenty to eat. Osprey pairs have been raising healthy broods of three chicks and many mornings this summer it took them a few minutes to find and catch a fish as the sky was getting light. Often they’d delivered breakfast to their chicks even before time the sun cleared the horizon.

©Carl Safina

Locally called bunkers by fishermen, menhaden are astonishing fish no matter what you call them. They eat by filtering the tiniest plankton from the sea. And by doing so they create the high-calorie, high-lipid flesh that is them—a miracle when you think about it. In effect, by being themselves they turn seawater into food. And so they are eagerly eaten by many fishes ranging from bluefish to bluefin tuna, by seabirds from terns and herons (who snap them up when they’re little) to gannets, gulls, cormorants, and loons; by sharks from blue to mako to thresher to white and others, and by every marine mammal from seals to whales. For that reason, on the East Coast menhaden have earned the moniker of “most important fish in the sea.”

Predatory fish like striped bass often haunt the edges of the schools. ©Carl Safina

But menhaden can be eaten only if they are there. And for many years they were not here. Commercial fishing had severely depleted them. Within sight of my house are the remnants of two menhaden processing factories who fished themselves into bankruptcy in the early 1900s, because when you take all you’re left with nothing. There’s also an island—Gardiner’s—where 300 pairs of ospreys used to nest, but they crashed too. Yet the fishing did not stop.

Menhaden are caught in higher volume than any fish on the East Coast. Basically no one eats them. They’re crushed into farm-animal food, their oil becomes the base of everything from paints to lipstick and gets put into omega-3 dietary supplement pills (of highly dubious efficacy because the omega-3 molecule might not hold up in pill form).

By nature, menhaden are supposed to be exceptionally abundant. But by the time I got to the east end of Long Island, they were largely a thing of the past here. I saw one small school of adults in the late 1980s. Then—nothing. They were so scarce that one day while I was in the wheelhouse of a boat that takes paying customers fishing and we came upon a big school, the captain—though he’s a professional fisherman—didn’t know what he was looking at!

Huge schools of menhaden are recovering, providing food for birds, fishes, whales, and dolphins. ©Carl Safina

Their disappearance began reversing in the last five years because of one thing: commercial netting of huge schools had driven menhaden to historic lows, and fisheries managers belatedly capped the catch for the first time. Almost immediately, about 2013, I started to see some sizable schools coming into waters around Montauk. And this year has been phenomenal, as the return to abundance continues.

But, you know there has to be a “but.” One corporation continues its grim reaping of millions of these fish for industrial purposes. For many years they fought tooth and nail to prevent anyone from putting any limits on their catches. And now not surprisingly the forces of greed are throwing all their lobbying shoulder into trying to claw back to high-volume, high-risk, depletion-guaranteed catch volumes.

The coastal ocean is in recovery mode, with schools of menhaden increasingly common. ©Carl Safina

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is going to decide whether to drop the catch limits or modify them. An awful lot is at stake for our whole coastal ocean.

Please write to them to tell them you support “Option E in Section 2.6 of Amendment 3,” which would leave 75 percent of the population un-caught and require that the wild population never drops below 40 percent of its potential size if there was no fishing at all.

Please help ensure that there are enough Atlantic menhaden left alive in the sea to feed the seabirds, fishes, whales and dolphins.

Humpback whale feeding on Menhaden in waters off New York City. ©Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale

Stop one corporation from again devastating the Atlantic menhaden’s population. Help keep Atlantic menhaden on track for their return to abundance.

You can submit public comment and/or testify at a hearing in your state in support of Option E in Section 2.6. Option E, the most scientifically sound option, will help ensure there are enough menhaden in the sea for the wildlife who rely on them.

Public comments on Draft Amendment 3 will be accepted until 5:00 p.m. on October 20, 2017.

Send your comments directly to where they will have the most impact and will become part of the public comment record.

comments@asmfc.org <comments@asmfc.org> (Subject line: Draft Amendment 3)

Megan Ware
Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission
1050 N. Highland Street,
Suite 200 A-N
Arlington VA. 22201

Fax: 703.842.074

Public hearings will be held in September and October in states all along the Atlantic Coast. More information on when and where hearings will be held can be found online at: www.asmfc.org/species/atlantic-menhaden/.

The final decision on Amendment 3 is scheduled for November 13 and 14 at the BWI Airport Marriott, 1743 West Nursery Road, Linthicum, MD.

Carl Safina is author of seven books, including Song for the Blue Ocean, which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year, Eye of the Albatross, Voyage of the Turtle, and The View From Lazy Point. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University, where he also co-chairs the University's Alan Alda Center for Communicating Science. A winner of the 2012 Orion Award and a MacArthur Prize, among others, his work has been featured in outlets such as The New York Times, National Geographic, CNN.com and The Huffington Post, and he hosts “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. The paperback version of Safina's seventh book, "Beyond Words: What Animals Think and Feel," is available in stores July 12, 2016.
  • Peter Etnoyer

    I support “Option E in Section 2.6 of Amendment 3,” which would leave 75 percent of the Menhaden population un-caught and require that the wild population never drops below 40 percent of its potential size if there was no fishing at all.

  • Mr.Dennis Clanton

    Nothing is more important than eco systems on land or sea.

  • casey potenzone

    Seeing the bunker return in such great numbers is amazing. I only hope more people support Carl in calling on our elected brain trust to not sell out the future to the largest bidder.

  • Steven C Lysohir

    I strongly support Option E in Section 2.6 of Amendment 3. . .it’s not every day we are afforded an opportunity to push back on the far too efficient commercial nets. Thank you for your post Carl.

  • Peter Murray

    I strongly support “Option E in Section 2.6 of Amendment 3,” which would leave 75 percent of the Menhaden population un-caught and require that the wild population never drops below 40 percent of its potential size if there was no fishing at all. The presence of mackerel and striped bass all summer is a testament to the value of this forage species is obvious.

  • Carolina Salguero

    What is the name of the “one corporation” mentioned so many times and why is is not named here?

  • Kin Yellott

    My fishing friends in Nantucket say the water was much warmer this summer. Bunker like warm water.
    and I support option E

  • Karen Carman

    I remember the Bunker Ships fishing as a child, then nothing, many fish disappearing in areas where my family once fished for our dinners. I support this measure. Keep our fishing waters healthy for all to use. Over fishing is not healthy!

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