Nature Notes: Bunkers Are Back

    The waters are warming up and so are fishing and the fish. Is it the return of the menhaden in large numbers that has something to do with it? Is it global warming? Is it a lot of things?
    The baby sperm whale that drifted ashore in Montauk two weeks ago might be an indication. It had a wound, what looked like a shark bite, according to Kim Durham of the Riverhead Foundation for Marine Research, who performed the necropsy on the whale at East Hampton’s Springs-Fireplace Road solid waste facility. Sperm whales are rare in our vicinity. We see more dead pygmy sperm whales, a different species that is smaller but otherwise almost identical in appearance.
    A giant Pacific Ocean sperm whale was memorialized in the novel “Moby-Dick.”
    Pacific sperm whales were regularly captured and brought in to the Port of Oakland as recently as 1965, a few years before America’s Marine Mammal Protection Act went into effect. The whales were hung by their tails and dropped inch-by-inch head first into a giant tub grinder, which rendered them into whale oil and other stuff.
    Sperm whales are the third largest whale after the blue and finback whales, which are baleen whales that sieve krill from ocean waters in order to grow up and make a living. The sperm whale, on the other hand, is a fish eater, it lacks the straining baleen brushes that most other whales have, but has peg teeth for capturing larger food organisms, including squids and octopi. Members of the herring family — in our ocean menhaden or “bunkers” — are among their favorites.
    Menhaden hit their peak not long after the Civil War. In the 1880s, when commercial landings in New York State were at their zenith, menhaden made up the bulk of the catch. The menhaden fishery lasted right up until the end of the Smith Meal Company’s operation on Hicks Island in Napeague Bay in the late 1960s. In the 1920s there were several fish rendering plants on both sides of the Peconic Estuary, mostly based in East Hampton Town. Only the Smith Meal chimney remains as a memorial to the heyday of the bunker fleets when the menhaden fishery ruled the world.
    Menhaden are back. They not only are good for sperm whales, they are a staple of the dolphins and porpoises, of which there are at least six species that ply our waters. With each new summer in this millennium bottlenose dolphins are becoming more and more common in the Peconic Estuary. Apparently there is more and more for them to eat in the way of bunkers and other schooling fish. Last summer pods of dolphins were seen by several boaters working the waters of Gardiner’s Bay off Gardiner’s Island.
    On Sunday during a return trip from Montauk to Three Mile Harbor, Denise and Louis Savarese ran into a bunch of dolphins in Napeague Bay. They were jumping and cavorting as only dolphins do when they’re chasing bait, presumably menhaden in this instance. It is not a sign of global warming but a sign of the return of the marine schooling fish species.
    When I was a boy in the 1940s and early 1950s the harbor porpoises, dolphins with blunt noses, would swim up Long Island Sound from east to west in pods numbering 40 to 50 every July and August. At about 11 a.m. each day during Red Cross-sponsored swimming lessons at Mattituck’s breakwater beach they would swim by on their way to Riverhead and points west. On one occasion they came so close to shore that we were whistled out of the water by the swimming instructors. The fish that they were chasing could have been menhaden but the water was also thick with Atlantic silversides, so thick that you could scoop them up with your hands.
    In the 1940s and 1950s ospreys were so common that they were nesting on just about every other telephone pole on the main road to Orient Point. There were no double-crested cormorants. Menhaden were the ospreys’ staple. When the menhaden went, so did the osprey, their departure coinciding with the widespread use of DDT and other chemically inorganic pesticides. The ospreys will probably never return to their record highs of the post-World War II years.
    The menhaden are back, but it’s a different ballgame. The cormorants and maybe even the dolphins will see to that. One thing for sure, if the menhaden population plummets again, it won’t be the fault of the fishermen, but due to the rise in cormorant numbers, the large numbers of striped bass and bluefish, and the ever-increasing intrusions of dolphins into our bays.