Will NJ Support the Whales? And Bald Eagles. . . and Striped bass?
To those New Jersey beach goers lucky enough to be treated to whale sightings this summer, you know what a thrill it is to see such massive animals breaching the water only hundreds of yards from shore. First, a gasp from the crowds, then a quick rush to the water-line to see the show, followed by cheers of wonder from all ages when the leviathan shows itself again.
As the old-timers among us can attest, these sightings are a recent phenomenon, a result of years of hard-earned conservation policy The greatest driver of this whale resurgence is clearly the return of Atlantic menhaden, locally known as “bunker.” Menhaden are a protein rich baitfish often called the “most important fish in the sea.” These forage fish feed not only whales, but dozens of other species, including dolphins, bald eagles, osprey, striped bass, and bluefish.
One foreign company in Virginia catches hundreds of millions of menhaden a year and grinds them up for use as farmed salmon feed and pet food. This company is responsible for over 70% of the menhaden exploitation, while the remainder is caught by family owned businesses for lobster and crab trap bait.
Decision-makers began to reel in the industry in 2012, when the regional fishery management body (ASMFC) established the first coastwide catch limit for menhaden in over a hundred years, allowing the bunker range to expand North from the Chesapeake Bay. This year, the ASMFC voted unanimously to establish a new ecological management system to account for the needs of predators that rely on menhaden for forage. This management shift from a “single species” to an “ecosystem” approach is a step forward in conservation.
However, the job is not yet done. This week, New Jersey and other East Coast States will have the opportunity to set a new catch limit for menhaden, one that will leave more menhaden in the water to feed striped bass, whales and other predators.
This is an important conservation decision. It’s also an economic one. Because menhaden feed so many other species, they help to drive eco-tourism and recreational fishing in New Jersey. Recreational fishing for striped bass alone is worth more than $1.6 Billion dollars to the state. Birding, whale watching, and other activities related to a healthy marine ecosystem are worth millions more.
Surprisingly, New Jersey ASMFC representatives such as Capt. Adam Nowalsky from South Jersey, the “proxy” for Assemblyman Houghtaling, have not always supported menhaden conservation. In fact, Mr. Nowalsky introduced motions in recent years intended to substantially increase menhaden catch, jeopardizing conservation progress. Governor Murphy’s Administration has yet to make a firm commitment to an option that will have at least a 50% chance of success in reaching the new ecosystem target. A more conservative option that reduces catch by more than 18% should really be adopted since other forage species like Atlantic herring are overfished.
Many of our ocean species are in decline, so it is more important than ever to take a bold stand for the most important fish in the sea.
Given Governor Murphy’s commitment to coastal resiliency and marine conservation, New Jersey should be leading the fight against the reduction fishery in Virginia.
Major state environmental groups like NJ Audubon, NY/NJ Baykeeper, Environment New Jersey, American Littoral Society and recreational fishing organizations such as Jersey Coast Anglers Association, New Jersey Outdoor Alliance and NJ State Federation of Sportsmen’s Club all agree: abundant bunker are essential to our marine ecosystem and provide a solid foundation for a robust New Jersey fishing economy. With attentive leadership from Governor Murphy’s Administration, hopefully all New Jersians will have the opportunity see humpback whales lunge feeding on menhaden off the beach for generations to come.
Capt. Paul Eidman
Founding Fish Alliance