Our grassroots group, “Menhaden Defenders” has been working with fellow anglers to increase awareness and get fisherman involved in the fight because they are on the front lines and have watched this vital forage fish vanish right before their eyes.
After sitting before the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission (ASMFC) last week, it frustrated me to listen to our publicly appointed commissioners openly debate whether or not there is “enough good data” to move forward with the catch limits they agreed to put in place last November. This meeting made it even more apparent to me that now is the time for us to increase our outreach beyond the recreational fishing community. The industry has its attorneys and lobbyists in place and they are making every attempt to delay this process so they can continue to fish at the unrestricted, breakneck pace they are used to.

A senior member of the pod

Angler outcry and participation is simply not enough as this issue goes so much deeper than fishing. Menhaden fish, in one form or another, are in our lives and due to our seemingly insatiable Omega-3 fever, continue to thrive on our grocer’s and pharmacy shelves. Consumers can’t even begin to perceive the products that it is used in, sprayed on, or grown with. Menhaden or Bunker as we call them here, have been depleted to the lowest levels ever recorded.
Menhaden are the backbone of the marine food web and vitally important to an amazing number of creatures both in the water and along its shores. People everywhere need to know that commercial overfishing has reduced (pun intended) Atlantic Menhaden stocks over 88% from what they used to be. Put simply, if there is not a significant catch limit placed upon this fishery now, we are looking at an ecological disaster in the making.
As the ASMFC continues through this fall with its debate of exactly how much of a catch limit to implement and how many tons of reduced landings each of the two sectors will have to absorb, the demise continues. The bunkers are purse seined and vacuumed up by the ton, ground up and turned into fish meal/fish oil (reduction sector-156K mt) and lobster/crab bait (Bait sector-45K mt). Together, both sectors net over 200,000 metric tons of bunker out of Mid Atlantic waters each year with the majority of landings recorded in Virginia and New Jersey.

An Omega Protein processing ship photo credit: Jetski Brian

Large schools of adult, foot long bunker gather up en masse along Jersey beaches every summer.  Sad to say, the Jersey shore is one of the few spots left on the East coast where this still actually happens.
Many of the menhaden schools north of Cape Cod and south of the Carolinas  have simply vaporized.
Right here in central NJ, I see tractor trailer trucks with containers filled with bunker and ice headed back to Maine loaded up with Jersey bunker for use as lobster bait. You know things are really bad when lobster-men have to pay a trucker to drive over 8 hours (433 miles) one wayfrom Booth Bay Harbor, Maine just to get bait. This upper and lower range absence should be incentive alone to implement a catch reduction. Marine biologists agree that this is a clear indication that the overall biomass of the stock has shrunken down.
Most of our large stripers that were here in the springtime have headed north to seek cooler waters, but the marine mammals, sharks, tuna, osprey and other top predators all capitalize on this warm water and the incredible bunker bounty.

Bunker Tails

Speaking of New Jersey, a perfect example happened recently. Sleeping in one day, I decided to go on what my fishing buddies and I call a “chick” trip. I suggested a boat ride to my girlfriend to go out dolphin watching. If you refer to the “man handbook”, these random acts of kindness are secretly offered up to our mates to gain points now, so that when we vanish into our fall fishing madness it is almost acceptable. We hitched my boat up to the truck, launched and cleared the inlet and in no time, we were right in the middle of a really big school of bunker. Seeing this, I was hopeful that we would come upon a pod or two of our bottle-nosed buddies.
Sure enough, they appeared right next to us, dozens of them, entire families or “pods” as they are called. Cavorting about, jumping and smashing the waters with tails and then swirling around to feast upon the protein packed little fish.
Most thrilling were the young ones, one of which we named “Mini”. My girlfriend was in awe and could not believe her eyes. She had never seen anything like this and was overwhelmed with joy. It brought tears to her eyes when she saw Mini with its mother feeding together in the school.
She has attended my talks and hears me speak about bunker all the time, but this single event has turned her into a vocal advocate and now she is emphatic about saving the bunker. She finds it unbelievable that there is no limit on how many of these fish can be caught and unacceptable that there is not more being done about it.
We all need to make sure that there are enough bunker in the water for “Mini” to feed on and thrive. While the ASMFC is deliberating, we can all do our part as consumers and pay attention in the grocery and pharmacy aisles.  Learn more about items enhanced with “Omega 3” and simply stop buying them. Select your fish oil products carefully and switch over to sustainably sourced oils like Flax seed. Make sure your dogs and cats aren’t eating food containing “herring” or “Ocean fish” as these are just a few of the industries code words that are used to describe menhaden ingredients.
A drop in sales will send a clear message to the companies selling these products and ultimately get them to remove menhaden based ingredients and put an end to the antiquated practice of depleting the food web. The days of robbing a meal from wildlife in order to produce our food cheaper need to end.
It is my hope that everybody reading this will do even more than changing personal buying habits. Remember to show up at the local public hearings scheduled for this fall and tell your your states ASMFC commissioners how you feel and hope that they will think twice when making decisions. Please speak up and write to our congressional delegates and make sure that they save Mini’s next meal. Let them know how important it is to put a limit on the Atlantic Menhaden fishery and allow the stock to rebuild for the future.

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