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After Population Decline, Menhaden Return To Predators' Menus

Patrick Skahill
McMurray holds one menhaden caught in Long Island Sound. To avoid predators, menhaden will ball into large groups. For fishermen, that can make catching the fish ideal.

Menhaden, also called bunker, spill across the deck of a boat in Long Island Sound. This vital fish is now the subject of a new fisheries management decision.

Oily and smelly – Atlantic menhaden are one of the least sexy fish imaginable. But this humble fish, also called “bunker” or “pogie,” has deep roots off the coast of New England. 

It’s believed Native Americans taught the Pilgrims to fertilize their crops with the fish. And for decades, millions of tons of menhaden were pulled out of the ocean.

Now, there’s a movement to preserve this vital species, not just for the fishermen who catch it, but for animals that eat it.

John McMurray said he doesn’t really believe in reincarnation. But if it’s true, the charter boat captain joked he’s probably going to come back as a bunker.

“Kind of fast growing, short-lived species. Things that are, frankly put on this earth so that other things can eat them,” McMurray said.

Bunker are eaten by all sorts of predators: ospreys, tuna, and sometimes, something a bit bigger.

“You’ll be fishing on a bunker school and 20 feet away from me, all of a sudden they’ll all spray out at the same time,” McMurray said. Sometimes the whales will breach and open their mouths so close to boaters, McMurray said, “you can smell their breath.”

Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR
John McMurray tosses a net into Long Island Sound. He was demonstrating one way to catch menhaden, or bunker, which he uses as a fishing lure.

On a recent rainy morning on Long Island Sound, McMurray hopped on a boat to look for menhaden.

As he pulled out of the Norwalk Cove Marina, captain Cory Crochetiere explained what to look for.

“A lot of times you’ll see birds on them. Like the cormorants you see there,” Crochetiere said. “Or you’re looking for what we call ‘snaps.’”

Or pops – little dimples on the water.

After spotting a few, Crochetiere drives toward them. McMurray tossed in a net and quickly hauled it up. Dozens of bunker spilled onto the deck.

Menhaden fish
Credit Patrick Skahill / WNPR
Menhaden, also called bunker, spill across the deck of a boat in Long Island Sound. This vital fish is now the subject of a new fisheries management decision.

But menhaden harvests weren't always like this. Joseph Gordon is with the Pew Charitable Trusts and was also on the boat.

“Up until 2012, there was no coast-wide limit on this fish at all,” Gordon said.

And all that fishing had an impact, he said.

“There were very noticeable declines that were happening – especially around 2010,” Gordon said. “And so it was both a sense that population is declining and also that its value is so important that we needed to protect it.”

So in 2012 an interstate compact called the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission took action. It set a cap on the coast-wide harvest of menhaden.

“Before, the harvest had been fairly unrestricted. So that was a really big shift in how we manage menhaden,” said Megan Ware, a fishery management plan coordinator with the commission. It’s now looking at another shift in how the fishery is managed.  

“Menhaden serve as prey for lots of different predator species. And so this will look at not only the abundance of menhaden, but also the abundance of other predator species,” Ware said.

Cory Crochetiere said the 2012 coast-wide catch cap worked. And he hopes that, if passed, new limitations would too.

“We had no menhaden for years and then all of a sudden within two years of that reduction – they’re just everywhere,” Crochetiere said. “Without those menhaden, it’s like, we have no fishery. No striped bass in the spring, no bluefish in the summer.”

Crochetiere said he hopes menhaden stay abundant. For the environment, sure, but also for his business selling fishing boats.

Because, he said if he’s got a great fishery in the area, that’s more people that want to go out and fish. 

This report comes from the New England News Collaborative, eight public media companies coming together to tell the story of a changing region, with support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Patrick Skahill is a reporter at WNPR. He covers science and the environment. Prior to becoming a reporter, he was the founding producer of WNPR's The Colin McEnroe Show, which began in 2009. Patrick's reporting has appeared on NPR's Morning Edition, Here & Now, and All Things Considered. He has also reported for the Marketplace Morning Report. He can be reached by phone at 860-275-7297 or by email: pskahill@ctpublic.org.