Trouble Comes to Town

by Capt. Paul Eidman, Forage Fish Committee Chair
(from Jersey Coast Anglers Association October 2018 Newsletter)

This past week our waters, specifically the NJ/NY bight off of Sandy Hook NJ, had some visitors that we have not seen in a very long time. Omega protein Inc., the Atlantic menhaden (Bunker fish) processing giant, decided to take advantage of the calm seas and steam 250 miles north from Reedville, VA up to our waters. I am sure that the presence of whales and pictures and videos on social media brought attention to Omega and they decided to send some spotter planes up for a look. They were able to determine from above that there were millions of older, oil-rich bunker in giant schools.

For the past couple of months, this area has been the home to 13 juvenile humpback whales and countless pods of bottlenose dolphins. Last week, an organization, Gotham Whale, was onboard the party boat American Princess out of Jamaica Bay, NY enjoying a whale watching trip. As the whales and dolphins were lunge feeding on the abundant adult menhaden, they watched in awe as the Omega vessels pulled up nearby and proceeded to wrap the nets around millions of pounds of bunker and suck them up with vacuum hoses. No whales were entangled and there was no reported incidence of bycatch of any kind.

It was this event that has sparked an outpouring of renewed interest in Menhaden, and now local folks want the harvest to be stopped completely since they are removing all the whale food from the area. Fishermen want to know if the fall striped bass run is in jeopardy due to these ships fishing in the bight. Note that It is our contention that since this year’s young of year (peanut bunker) are being seen at super saturated levels in our back waters, that we are going to have an outstanding fall striper season, especially for the surf angling crowd.

Over a four-day span, there were four massive vessels, each capable of holding over a million bunker, some hold closer to two million fish. The vessels are named as follows:

The Rappahannock, 194 ft The Calcasieu Pass, 154 ft The John Dempster, 166 ft The Fleeton, 184 ft

This is all legal, by the way, and they are, in fact, operating in the EEZ (past the required 3 mile line) and within the harvest limit which has not been met for 2018 as of yet.

Folks are asking what they can do and what can be done to stop this harvest so that the whales will stay in the bight. Reality is that there is nothing we can do within the existing framework of the ASMFC except wait for the next meeting session to voice our concerns. But even this is ineffective because they have already voted AGAINST implementing ecosystem-based management methods as well as INCREASING to keep the catch limit another 8% to 214 MT for 2018 and 2019. Note that this level EXCEEDS the quota that was in place when overfishing was occurring back in 2012.

If you are not familiar with it already, please make a concerted effort to learn about ecosystem-based management. Bunker should NOT be managed the same way you manage a striper or a fluke or any other “single species.” The role bunker play in the marine food web is far too important to be managed the same way other fish are. This is the key message that is most important for all to grasp. It’s all about leaving enough menhaden in the water so they can provide the ecosystem-based services (like water filtration and converting algae into gamefish growing protein) that are filled by no other species!

If anglers and other concerned citizens were to do anything now, it would be to find a politician that would like to champion our cause. They could in turn implement a bill that would eliminate reduction fishing (The process that is used to make fish meal and oil) in the EEZ or push Omega reduction boats out 12 miles to make sure coastal waters could remain vibrant and abundant with Menhaden and gamefish. A buffer zone could help struggling coastal ecosystems and businesses thrive.

As many of you know, I run a small grassroots organization called Menhaden Defenders and we have been at this bunker thing for years. Most of all we need your engagement and support to stay afloat. What folks can do to help: Stay engaged, follow us online and share our posts, encourage others to like our page, educate others with facts. Don't just lurk around online, please speak up and let others know how important these fish are to you in your part of the coast. Take pictures out on the water, in grocery stores, etc. When you see something bunker related, post it and use your experience to teach others. Learn how to insert tags into your posts so that you can make sure companies like @omega see what you are posting.

Consider making a small donation online at our website, buy a Menhaden Defenders T shirt, a sticker to help support our work. As a consumer, you can look at the products that you buy and ask questions. It's not all about taking fish oil pills! There are dozens of divisions of Omega corporation and bunker is used in too many things to list! Companion pet foods alone are a big part of this. We have found that the majority of dog food on the shelves use menhaden as a cheap protein source. 8 out of 10 brands and formulas contain fish meal or oil! If you are not sure about the protein source for your pet’s food, call the 800 number on the bag and ask what kind of fish they use. And contrary to popular belief, we have found more fish in dog food than in cat food! Know that Omega corp is now owned by COOKE seafoods, a giant Canadian salmon fish farming company. Bunker is ground up for fish meal and oil and turned into fish pellets and shipped worldwide to feed fish for your table. Yes, now would be a good time to stop eating farmed salmon and switch over to either wild salmon or locally caught fish. Yes, the existing fishery management framework ASMFC.org allows the practice of reduction fishing to continue at this industrial scale. It will not stop until the annual catch quota is met. You need to stay informed, spread the word to regular people, as many people still do not even know what a bunker is and why they are so important. We need many more voices out there and educating your fellow man is key here in the long run. Please show up at upcoming meetings when called upon and speak your mind!

Remember No Menhaden = No bass, No Tuna, No Whales, No Osprey… No Nothing.

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