Dead menhaden wash up on shore
DEP: Appears a fishing trip went bad
Posted by the Asbury Park Press on 06/21/07
BY KEVIN PENTON
Commonly known as mossbunker, bunker or pogy.
Oily fish considered inedible by humans.
Caught for use as bait, animal feed or as an additive.
Menhaden oil, which contains Omega-3s, is an FDA-approved health food additive.
Oil is used in foods such as pasta sauces, salad dressings and sports drinks.
Oil is also used in products such as lubricants, oil paint and lipstick.
Originally used as an agricultural fertilizer and for oil lamps.
Source: Menhaden Resource Council, www.menhaden.org
Hundreds of Atlantic menhaden ? an oily and bony fish that rarely, if ever, makes its way onto a dinner plate ? have washed up dead along the shores of Raritan Bay in recent days.
Called mossbunker, bunker or pogy by those who troll local docks, the menhaden appear to have died as part of a fishing operation gone wrong, said Darlene Yuhas, a spokeswoman for the state Department of Environmental Protection.
Yuhas said DEP officials do not believe the menhaden died as part of a natural environmental occurrence or because of contamination in the water.
"Everything seems to point to this having been the result of a fishing operation," Yuhas said. "We've seen nothing that would suggest otherwise."
Law enforcement officers with the state Division of Fish & Wildlife's marine unit who investigated the fish kill found some of the menhaden had net marks carved onto their sides, Yuhas said.
With very few exceptions, the menhaden appear to be the only type of fish washing up dead, she said.
The officers did not collect water samples for testing because it is not part of their routine, Yuhas said, adding the investigation is not yet complete.
NY/NJ Baykeeper Andrew Willner accepts the DEP's analysis of what happened but said menhaden often die in mass numbers because of a lack of oxygen in the water.
"There's enough of it happening that makes this noteworthy," Willner said of the amount of dead fish.
Menhaden, algae-eaters that swim in very tight schools, sometimes get chased around by bluefish, a sea predator that eats smaller fish, Willner said.
Should they enter a section of water with less oxygen, the tightly-swimming fish can end up with very little air to breathe, he said.
Willner does not know whether menhaden enjoy snacking on Dactyliosolen fragilissimus, the type of algae that bloomed in Raritan and Sandy Hook bays and along parts of the ocean last month.
The bloom turned the water brown, but environmental officials at the time said they did not find the algae to be harmful to humans or to the ecology unless it sunk to the bottom and depleted dissolved oxygen.
Yuhas said DEP officials do not believe the menhaden died as a result of the algae bloom.
Given that menhaden swim in large, tight schools, fishing boats often capture them by using very large nets. One possibility is that a net broke, Yuhas said, releasing into the water hundreds of fish already dead either because they had been out of the water for too long or because they had been crushed by the weight of their kin.
Joe Branin, general manager of the Belford Seafood Cooperative Association, said the last time anyone fished for menhaden from his group was more than a month ago. He said there were no problems with the catch.
"There's a lot of recreational fishermen running around with cast nets," Branin said. "The only thing I know for sure is that this was not from our operation."
Given that they are considered virtually inedible by humans, menhaden are fished primarily for either their oil, which is used in a variety of household products, or for use as animal feed.
While humans wrinkle their nose at its overly-fishy smell and taste, there are few meals bluefish or striped bass like more than chopped bunker, said Nick Silvestri, a Holmdel resident who is a regular along the docks of Keyport and occasionally uses menhaden as bait.
Frank Russo, a Keyport resident who was chatting with Silvestri and others on the docks Wednesday, said he has been watching the menhaden wash up dead for over a week.
"You can almost see them gasping for air, swimming in little circles," Russo said. "Somebody better come out and do some testing on the water."