Monitoring menhaden

Quick now, raise your hand if you know the answer. What is a menhaden and why was state legislation needed to protect it (them)? Just as I thought. I don’t see many raised hands out there so I shall continue.

Menhaden may be one of the most important if not the most important fish species living in salt water. Menhaden are small (up to 15 inches in length), silver-sided fish with deeply forked tails and are the principal forage base for species such as striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, tuna and sharks. Menhaden are probably what the Indians urged the pilgrims to plant along with their corn seed.

Menhaden are found on coastal and estuarine waters from Nova Scotia to South Florida and are abundant in the Chesapeake and other northern bays along the East Coast. Menhaden are a very oily and bony fish having almost zero culinary value.

As a species, menhaden swim near the water surface in large schools, feeding on microscopic marine life. Their principal food source is phtyo and zooplankton. Because they are very bony and oily, they are considered an extremely important commercial fishery all along the East Coast. Last year between 300,000 and 400,000 metric tons of menhaden were caught by commercial fishermen and rendered into fish oil, fish solubiles and fish meal. In addition, thousands of recreational and commercial fishermen use these fish as effective bait for crabs, lobsters and predatory game fish.

So what’s the problem, you ask? Because of their commercial value, menhaden are subject to overfishing, and not by just a little bit. A number of companies are currently fishing all along the coast and netting millions of pounds of these fish, extracting their oil and grinding them into fish meal. These fish, as important as they are for the saltwater ecosystem, are being decimated by a large fleet of purse seine boats with massive nets and powerful vacuum systems that literally “mine” the sea, stripping the ocean clean. Because menhaden play a pivotal role in the marine environment, recreational and conservation groups have been trying to gain a level of protection in New Jersey state waters for the past 20 years. Currently, several states, including New York, offer some level of protection for these fish.

In what is being hailed as a victory for recreational fishermen and conservation groups, the Menhaden Management Board of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted to limit the amount of menhaden that can be taken in costal waters by these commercial fishing factories.

Menhaden may not mean much to people here in the Southern Tier, but the issue is extremely important to all of us since the decimation of any fish, plant or animal species diminishes us as human beings. The idea of taking limitless numbers of any species and the insane idea that no control should be in place to limit the annual take by commercial fishing fleets is a dangerous notion and one that made the passenger pigeon extinct and buffalo nearly so.

Categories: New York – Mike Raykovicz

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