Fishing nets are taking whales’ food in the shadow of Manhattan. Here’s what you need to know

By Safina Center Staff

Humpback whale lunge-feeding on menhaden in New York waters. Photo: Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale

One commercial fishing company is cruising off the shores of New York, taking whales’ food.

One year ago we reported that small, herring-like fish called menhaden, a major food source for whales, dolphins and large fishes, were making a comeback in New York waters. But then, last year, fisheries managers decided to increase the menhaden catch limit by 8 percent, or 216,000 metric tons of fish—allowing hundreds of millions more menhaden to be caught off the U.S. East Coast each year.

Why? One fishing company won out over whales, dolphins, fish and thousands of recreational fishers and whale watchers. As Safina Center Fellow Paul Greenberg has prolifically discussed and has covered in his new book, The Omega Principle, menhaden and other small, oil-rich fish are caught by major corporations in huge quantities, only to be ground up and turned into fertilizers, aquaculture feed, human health supplements and pet food. This creates a situation where there are fewer fish for marine animals to eat, and where fish caught are not used to directly feed humans. It is one of the least efficient ways to use fish.

Since the catch limit was increased, menhaden fishers in waters off New York have become especially active, pulling up enormous quantities of fish, reports Paul Sieswerda, executive director at Gotham Whale, a New York City whale research and advocacy organization. And Sieswerda says that one company—Omega Protein Corporation—is pulling up extra-large quantities of these important fish.

One of Omega Protein’s ships catching menhaden just outside New York waters where humpback whales and other marine animals feed. Photo: Gotham Whale

We recently spoke to Sieswerda to learn more about the current situation in New York’s waters and what needs to be done now to protect these important fish from exploitation by companies like Omega Protein.

Safina Center: What are menhaden, and why is menhaden conservation a focus of your organization?

Paul Sieswerda: Menhaden, called “bunker” in New York (and by many other local names along the U.S. seaboard from Maine to Texas) is a bone- and oil-filled herring-like fish, 10 to 12 inches in length. It has also been called “the most important fish in the sea,” by H. Bruce Franklin, the author of a book by the same name. Virtually all predators in the sea, except humans, eat menhaden directly. The whales of New York City feed directly on these fish and are the reason for the comeback of marine mammals to our area.

SC: Why is menhaden so important for the health of whales? Do any other marine animals rely on menhaden for survival?

PS: Whales come to northern latitudes to feed all summer before returning south to warmer waters to mate and give birth. They must acquire all their fat reserves while feeding here in the north because they do not feed during their winters in the tropics. The menhaden are at the bottom of the food pyramid feeding on algae and zooplankton. They provide food for sport fish like sharks, bluefish, striped bass, seabirds and anything with a mouth big enough to take them at each stage of their growth.

SC: Why do people catch menhaden?

PS: There is a local fishery for bait. Fishermen jig them individually for single hook sport fishing. Local fishers net them as bait for their traps and to ship to Maine for the lobster fishery. And the Omega Protein Corporation nets them on an industrial scale for the “reduction fishery” where they are turned into animal feed and additives for a myriad of products. This is a single company industry, operating out of Reedville, Virginia, which was recently bought by the Cooke Seafood, a Canadian aquaculture and seafood conglomerate.

SC: What threats does the Omega fleet pose in terms of conserving menhaden?

PS: The Omega Fleet uses a very efficient method of fishing. The fleet consists of 10 large “factory” ships close to 200 feet long, some of which can transport two boats of about 40 feet each, filled with nets. These boats ply out the nets around the menhaden school, guided by spotter planes that also are used to find the menhaden. The purse seine net surrounds the entire school, closing off the bottom giving the fish no escape. The nets are then brought next to the larger ships and vacuumed into the holds until they are filled and returned to Virginia.

Rinse and repeat…. This method cleans the local area of bunker much like clear-cut loggers reap the forests of the northwest. There is nothing left for grazing whales.

SC: What actions does Gotham Whale seek to take to alleviate the threats posed by the Omega fleet?

PS: Gotham Whale is trying to raise public awareness because the legislative, regulation, and policy approach is not working. The limit of the total allowable catch by industrial fishers is, in our opinion, too high. The State of New York, which prohibits menhaden fishing without a permit, only extends three miles off the coast, which is barely a stone’s skip compared to the enormous area where fishing is allowed. While we are supporting the efforts to improve these restrictions, the fish could be gone before any action takes place. We hope to influence the company itself, through public relations or investor direction.

SC: What can readers do to help or take action?

PS: Gotham Whale is developing an action plan to support better regulation and public awareness, to try to influence this and other companies. Please stay tuned for updates by following Gotham Whale on our website, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. Help us fight the fight!

Another Humpback whale lunge-feeding on menhaden in New York waters. Photo: Artie Raslich/Gotham Whale


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Meet the Author
Ecologist Carl Safina is author of seven books, including the best-selling “Beyond Words; What Animals Think and Feel,” and “Song for the Blue Ocean,” which was a New York Times Notable Book of the Year. His writing has won a MacArthur “genius” prize; Pew and Guggenheim Fellowships; book awards from Lannan, Orion, and the National Academies; and the John Burroughs, James Beard, and George Rabb medals. His work has been featured in The New York Times, The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post, National Geographic, and elsewhere, and he hosted the 10-part “Saving the Ocean” on PBS. Safina is founding president of The Safina Center at Stony Brook University.