Nature Notes: The Great Bunker Stampede

The fish kill of menhaden experienced at Southampton Town’s Shinnecock Canal may have been one of the largest in American history
Were the dolphins spotted by the docks of Sag Harbor the other day there to feed on bunker? Terry Sullivan

Napeague was once famous for its bunker factory, the Smith Meal Company. Local fishermen purse-seined up menhaden by the ton and unloaded them at that menhaden reduction plant where they were turned into fishmeal. By the dawn of the 1960s, bunkers became rare, real estate for McMansions became much more valuable than for fish rendering sites, the wind had gone out of the purse-seiners’ sails, and it was time to catch and market other marine species.

While at the turn of the century there were at least five large bunker unloading spots on Napeague and Gardiner’s Bay (at Gerard Point, Barcelona, and Promised Land), by 1970 there were none. The bunker fishery had collapsed for good. 

The mid-November fish kill of menhaden experienced at Southampton Town’s Shinnecock Canal and the bay behind it by all accounts may have been one of the largest in American history. The Southampton Press reported that as of last Thursday, 374,000 pounds, or 147 tons, had been carted away from Shinnecock Bay beaches and marshes. An adult menhaden weighs a pound or so, so we can estimate that some 374,000 fish died, perhaps twice that many, as the cleanup is still in progress and many dead fish floated out to sea. 

A smaller kill registered at Fresh Pond in Huntington Town amounted to a piddling 11,000 dead menhaden. The menhaden, or mossbunker, is a member of the herring family, all which are schoolers and filter feeders. We have several species in New York waters including alewives, blueback herring, Atlantic herring, and shad. Unlike the menhaden, all of these others are fit to eat when properly prepared. An old recipe for menhaden goes something like this: Nail a fresh menhaden to a board. Heat the board on a grill without setting it afire. When done, throw fish away and eat board. 

Hmmm, doesn’t that same recipe also work for coots, or scoters, a common winter sea duck along the Atlantic Coast?

There was also a massive bunker kill last year at the edge of Long Island Sound on western Long Island. That had to do with diminished oxygen levels in the water. This last had to do with a lock closure in the canal and piling — a fish stampede, as it were. No animal species is without its stampedes. Read the daily newspapers and it is hard to find a day when there isn’t a human panic stampede reaction in which many lives are lost, say outside a soccer stadium, during a Hajj processional in the Near East, from inside a burning nightclub, or at sea, from sinking ferries and flimsy overcrowded scows.

Flocking species such as the menhaden have an advantage. They have no trouble finding mates when it’s time to reproduce. Members of the herring family mass spawn — males and females mill around in compact groups releasing eggs and sperm in a cloud. A mature female menhaden can release as many as 150,000 eggs ripe for fertilization, in other words, enough to start a whole new massive school if each one was fertilized and each ensuing larva grew to maturity.

Filter-feeding organisms are often groupies: When one member finds a cache of food, all of those in close proximity also eat. The gill rakers of herrings that support the gill structure comprise “combs,” which sieve out plankton as the fish swims through a swathe of water with mouth open. They work in the same fashion as the baleen plates of filter-feeding whales like the blue whale, the world’s largest mammal. But many sessile organisms — barnacles, clams, mussels, and the like — are also filter feeders: Rather than pursue what they eat, they wait for it to come to them.

Immature menhaden take mostly phytoplankton, adults mostly zooplankton such as the swimming larvae of shellfish and crabs. When there are plankton booms there often follow filter-feeding fish booms. When there are filter-feeding fish booms, there often follow striped bass, mackerel, shark, dolphin, and whale booms, as well as cormorant, osprey, and eagle booms. A mature dolphin can swallow 10 to 15 adult bunkers in a single feeding. Is that what those dolphins bobbing up and down among the docks of Sag Harbor were doing the other day?

In a classic food pyramid or food chain, nothing goes to waste. From dust to dust without losing a single speck, to paraphrase the Bible. The late fisherman and local historian Stuart Vorpahl was also a student of massive comings and goings. He had a very long view of population dynamics. “No bay scallops around this fall? Wait a few years, they’ll be back.” Stuart was not what you would call a “regulator,” but more a “crapshooter.” He had no formal training in the theory of probability or statistics. He couldn’t tell the difference between an algorithm and a quadratic equation, but he was a formidable predictor of things coming or going. The old regulatory way was driven by the law of supply and demand. If it doesn’t pay, why bother?

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is responsible for setting catch limits on this or that species. It is an earnest group of informed scientists and commercial fishing regulators with a few management types thrown in who study fish population, fish harvests, and good and bad reproduction years in order to come up with probable figures for setting harvest limits along the Atlantic Coast.

But fishery biology is anything but an exact science and many a local commercial fisher would take up another line of business if he or she geared up and fished exactly according to the dictates of the fisheries commission. In actuality, many commercial fishers do end up in another profession where the outcomes are more certain. One might even posit that understanding the ups and downs of all animal populations, including the Homo sapiens, will never be precisely worked out given eons of data-taking and massaging. As the man said, “The more we know, the more we don’t know.”

In fact, many pundits would say we have just as much chance at understanding the workings and interactions of the universe’s macrobodies and nanobodies as we do understanding nature itself. But that doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t stop working at it. And, according to that brilliant British theoretician Stephen Hawking, we may have no more than 100 years to come up with the big answer, even less than that if we depend upon artificial intelligence to come up with it.

There will always be massive fish kills, there will always be stampedes, there will always be wars, there will always be political corruption, genocide, bigotry, bullying, and all the rest of man’s and nature’s destructive acts. Perhaps not.

Larry Penny can be reached via email at