Menhaden, or Bunker, Warrant Protection

Called the most important fish in the sea, menhaden, or bunker in local parlance, put in a great show this summer. Bluefish and striped bass feasted on their rich and oily flesh. Several species of sharks took wild swipes at their schools. And whales, dolphins, and osprey got in the act, too, putting on spectacular shows within easy view of the ocean beach. 

But all is not entirely well with menhaden. They remain an important commercial catch with at least one industrial-size company targeting them all along the Atlantic Coast and into the Gulf of Mexico. Fisheries managers, noting their abundance, are considering revising harvest rules that would allow greater harvests. This is a risky proposition.

Promised Land and the area around Napeague Harbor in Amagansett were once the site of an impressive concentration of fish-processing plants. The last, the Smith Meal Company, moved on after the hauls diminished, shutting its giant boilers for good in the late 1960s. 

Many local people had been employed in bunker fishing’s heyday, and scores of others came seasonally from coastal Virginia and other places to round out the crews. The smell of the steaming fish was, to put it mildly, astonishing and never to be forgotten by those who endured it; the nearest houses to the plants were never any closer than a half-mile away, and woe be their inhabitants when the wind shifted.

As eaters of tiny marine organisms, menhaden tend to stay close to shore where warm, shallow water favors the growth of plankton. Boaters and those lucky enough to fly overhead in small aircraft during the summer recognize their dense schools by their reddish purple hue. These schools once made them relatively easy to catch with purse seines, and the fish’s numbers plummeted by the time their large-scale processing ended in the Northeast. That it has taken decades for them to rebound as much as they have is one of the mysteries of the deep.

It is not just other fish, marine mammals, and birds that benefit from healthy menhaden stocks; many commercial fisheries are built on the species that favor them as food. And menhaden are like candy for striped bass, among the most highly prized recreational fish. It need almost not be stated that the fall bass run here is a cherished tradition, one with measurable economic benefits. 

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is accepting comment until Oct. 20 on an amendment that could protect up to three-quarters of the menhaden through new catch limits. This is an important step to protect not just the menhaden but an entire ecosystem that depends on them.