February 27, 2019
This spring, conservation and sport fishing groups congratulated themselves on pushing the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries to reduce menhaden landings by 25 percent. To some observers, nature seems to be endorsing the move, with whales and pods of dolphins feeding right off the beaches this summer, to the delight of boaters and beachgoers.
But the millions of menhaden, also called bunker, could get scarcer late this summer for its other consumers: recreational and commercial fishermen from New Jersey to Maine.
Once the cheapest of bait fish, bunker prices have been escalating in response to increasing demand, largely from the New England lobster industry. That fleet’s traditional first choice, Atlantic herring, has become steadily more restricted since 2005 as regulators pay more attention to issues like bycatch and ecosystem effects of removing herring.
Menhaden’s ecosystem role low on the foodchain has made it a contentious species as well. Despite the sight of marine mammals chowing down, the impact of management changes have yet to be seen, says Paul Eidman, a charter captain and activist with Menhaden Defenders.
“I don’t know if I really agree” that the lively ocean shows menhaden are booming, Eidman said. “It’s going to take a few years. But we are at the epicenter of the surviving biomass. It should be from Maine to Florida, thicker than thieves.”
Meanwhile recreational fishermen are using more fresh menhaden, particularly for striped bass. That market has gotten big enough for commercial gill net captains to specifically target bunker during peak times of the season, and establish relationships with bait dealers who pick up the fish dockside.
New Jersey is a top supplier of bait, with a 2014 quota of 41.7 million pounds of bunker. That’s second only to Virginia, where much of a 318 million pound quota goes for industrial use and is harvested by Omega Protein based on Chesapeake Bay.
But an effect of menhaden catch reductions —driven in large part by demands to protect more of those Chesapeake Bay bunker — will also be earlier season closings as quota gets used up, fishermen say.
“Last year we got shut down in July after two and a half months into it,” said Richard Isaksen of the Belford Seafood Cooperative in Middletown, who purse seines bunker for the bait market with his boat Isaetta.
Prices have about doubled in the last couple of seasons, Isaksen said.
When menhaden crowded the Shark River in May they used up all the oxygen in the water – asphyxiating themselves, other fish, and sometimes it seemed imminent to every person who gagged on the fumes.
Isaksen says he thought back to when New Jersey began putting more restrictions on him and other purse seine captains who net menhaden for bait.
That brought back more menhaden into Raritan Bay — along with summer fish kills, when the bunker schools mobbed bayside creeks, Isaksen said.
“We’re going to see more of this happening,” Isaksen predicted. He said it begs the question of whether fishermen really have been taking too many fish.
Eidman takes another view. The early shutdown kept more bunker swimming in local waters “so I think we retained a lot more fish into the fall” to the overall benefit of autumn fishing, he said.
Gradually menhaden, or pogies as they are called in Maine, have become part of an annual industry drama for lobstermen — where will the bait come from? With restricted areas and seasons for catching herring, Belford and Cape May have become big bait sources for Down East fishermen.
Last year Jennie Bichrest, owner of Purse Line Bait in Maine, bought a lot of New Jersey-caught pogies – and says she went as far south as Virginia once New Jersey captains went through their quota.
“I think the end of September will be the crunch,” depending on how much lobster her customers are catching, Bichrest said. For now, she said, the bait industry is taking the same strategy as last year and freezing as much as they can store.
It’s a situation that’s been building for years, Eidman says.
“That’s been going on for a decade,” he said. “It’s a race for fish. Those herring areas get closed, and they come down here to buy fish. They freeze it and sit on it, and make the money.”
Dive into the action and embrace the changing tides for Menhaden