As requested, thanks for joining the Battle for the Bunker!
Edited version as printed in The Home News:
Raritan Bay is home base for many of New York and New Jersey?s fisherman. Fishermen leave the many marinas that dot the bay shore of Staten Island, Monmouth and Middlesex County and head out to the bay in search of striped bass, bluefish, summer flounder (fluke) and other game fish. In order to have a successful day on the bay, anglers look for baitfish. Find the bait, you find the gamefish. The predominant baitfish in Raritan Bay is bunker, (aka Atlantic menhaden). Without bunker in the water, you might as well play golf.
Ranked right up there with the Chesapeake and Delaware bays, Central New Jersey?s Raritan Bay is one of the predominant nurseries/estuaries for Atlantic menhaden stocks. Bunker spawn out at sea and the fry get caught up in the currents and ride them into the back bays and estuary areas where they stay the summer and grow larger until fall. Adult bunker are a herring like fish that swim together in very large schools and feed on microorganisms like algae, copepods and plankton. They are a lynchpin in the ecology of the bay ? converting microorganisms into flesh and becoming a protein enriched package for carnivorous fish, marine mammals and marine birds.
Adult bunker are one of the most sought after commercial species along the Atlantic coast. Their population has declined 86% over the last 30 years. Current bunker populations are now at dangerous levels. Marine biologists use the term overfishing to describe when fish are taken out of the ecosystem faster than nature can replace them. This past spring, An Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission study team determined that that overfishing has occurred 32 out of the past 54 years! Hard to believe that this is allowed to occur, but the story surrounding Menhaden is filled with political twists and turns. Since the late 1800?s, this vital species has been removed from the waters without restrictions of any kind.
At present, there is no limit or ?cap? on the amount of bunker that can be landed from the ocean or bays. Sustained industrial overfishing has landed us where we are today, and as usual, the recreational fisherman take the hit.
The commercial menhaden fishery is made up of two sectors, a reduction fishery that comprises approximately 80 percent of landings, and a bait fishery that harvests the remaining 20 percent The modern reduction fishery grinds menhaden into fish meal and oil for use in aquaculture feed, pet foods, livestock feed and dietary supplements. Just one company is responsible for the menhaden reduction industry on the Atlantic Coast: Omega Protein, Inc. Omega Protein continues daily to remove menhaden at a rate that makes it nearly impossible for the fish population to sustain itself.
The remaining 20 percent of the total Atlantic menhaden catch is attributed to the bait sector which provides menhaden for the huge lobster fishery that spans New England. Over the course of the last decade, the bait of choice, locally caught herring (Atlantic, Blueback and Alewife) has been wiped out. This is forcing lobstermen to seek another source of bait. High capacity boats from New England travel more than 350 miles to the waters off Sandy Hook to net bunker and bring them back home for the traps.
The combination of Omega proteins tonnage and the lobster bait boom is proving to be a lethal blow. Raritan bay anglers and beyond are witnessing localized depletion of menhaden. The gamefish that depend on them will surely follow. New England anglers have already seen all the pogy vanish before them and this is certainly a ghost of our future if things don?t change quickly.
The Raritan Bay, Raritan River, local fishing and related businesses cannot thrive without menhaden in the water. The time to act is now, as for the first time in the history of this commercial fishery, the ASMFC is taking public comment until November 2 when they will vote on putting a cap on this fishery in an effort to end overfishing and return menhaden stocks back to healthy levels.
Collectively we cannot allow big business to continue to strip mine our waters at the current pace, with complete and total disregard for all that depend on a healthy balanced ecosystem. Lets all get together and push the ASMFC to do the right thing and put an end to the exploitation. Visit our website to send your comments, www.menhadendefenders.org
It?s up to us, be it fisherman or concerned citizen to speak up, and demand that starting with the 2012 season, more adult menhaden are left in the water to reproduce and continue to support the marine food web.