The Fish You Seldom See

At the height of boating activity last summer in Edgartown Harbor, there was a pleasant surprise. Two dolphins spent three days swimming around Edgartown Harbor.

This wasn’t a quick visit. They were observed meandering amid the piers, the boats and the moorings. These dolphins weren’t lost or here on vacation and they weren’t here to draw a community of watching spectators, though lots of folks saw them. They weren’t participants in some impromptu aquarium show. You don’t need to be a fisheries biologist to know dolphins sauntering in the harbor were here for a meal. They were here because there was food, and we hope plenty of it.

For the first time in at least two decades, this year Edgartown harbor was filled with forage fish. Small appetizing little bait fish were swirling in the middle of the harbor beneath the forest of aluminum masts and beautiful sailboats. You could watch the activity from the dock, a deck or from a dinghy.

The fish these dolphins were feeding on had to be what we locally call bunker, or more widely known as menhaden. For the town’s young anglers, the arrival of menhaden was a pleasant unexpected gift. For menhaden are a choice bait fish for those who would hunt sport fish like striped bass and bluefish. During the derby this past fall, competitors were out in Edgartown harbor in small skiffs with throw nets, or with rods and treble hooks trying to snag them. In years past, if you wanted bunker, you had to buy it in a tackle shop. Bunker is candy to all striped bass.

Twenty and thirty-year-old anglers had never seen anything like so many little fish swimming in the harbor. It seemed like an isolated event. For those of us with a few more years under our caps, we remember when menhaden ruled the waters and were part of the harbor story. In those years there was drama at and below the surface, as these bait fish were chased about by bigger fish, false albacore and the once abundant squeteague, known also as sea trout or weakfish.

Menhaden swam and swarmed like underwater bees in all the Vineyard harbors and in and around all the coastal ponds like Menemsha, Sengekontacket and Lagoon Ponds.

But mysteriously they disappeared. We still believe that not far offshore they were vacuumed up by large fishing boats from afar.

Menhaden are as precious as oysters. They eat the same stuff. Menhaden feed on phytoplankton and zooplankton. No one gets bitten by a menhaden. They don’t bite and they aren’t attracted to any baited hook. They swim with their mouths open and ingest microscopic creatures. They are filter feeders and play a huge part in cleaning up our waterways of what other fish try and avoid.

While there has been plenty of welcome attention in recent years about how oysters are key to restoring our cloudy nutrient rich algae ridden saltwater ponds, menhaden do an even sweeter job.

A century ago, menhaden and oysters ruled the harbors, coastal inlets from Maine to Florida. They were essential like anadromous fish, river herring, shad and even salmon.

Why is it you’ve never heard about menhaden in the fish market or the restaurant? Nobody eats menhaden. You may eat oysters, but you don’t eat menhaden. But every fish in the ocean loves to eat menhaden, from little snapper bluefish close to shore to the whales that swim in the open ocean. Swordfish eat menhaden. Seals and dolphins eat menhaden. The only other top favorite meal of choice is squid, but there is not time for talking about squid here.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is looking for input and scheduled a number of public hearings on the issue from Maine to Florida. Unfortunately, none were held on the Vineyard but they seek opinions on steps they’ve taken and are about to take. They want to hear from the stakeholders. The commission’s fisheries managers are taking a new look in response to growing clamor that menhaden needs to be better managed as all of us look at a wider and a more holistic oversight of the ocean and its many resources.

This is different management than what the popular commercial and recreational fish on our dinner table get. This is not about quotas that will be delivered to fish markets or restaurants here or nearby. The harvest is used for fish meal and shipped overseas to fish farms. This is a resource that was predominantly used as fertilizer. This is a fish caught by the ton and rendered into oil and inedible products used thousands of miles away. This is a local product shipped afar. There is nothing quaint about the catching of these fish. The steel fishing boats that work with nets as big as a football fields are as big or almost as big as our local Steamship Authority ferries. And these fishing boats, often working in pairs often operate within a couple of miles from shore. It is a mechanized fishery with a small crew. You don’t know anyone from here who works on these boats.

Menhaden’s gift to the world is a more precious to the health of our ocean, than rendered as a product that feeds an economic engine ashore.

New initiatives have arisen along coastal towns as more fisheries scientists and recreational and even commercial fishermen rise to recognize that menhaden have been overfished for too long. That disregard for the fish, because it is inedible to humans, has to stop.

The subject has a far reaching impact on the health of Martha’s Vineyard and its coastal waters. This may be one of the most important environmental impact issues that affects our Island waters that we’ve not talked about.

There is a community of commercial fishermen afar who want to catch more menhaden. They are aching to have the liberties they had before. They will tell everyone in the room that the fish are not being overfished, that there are tons more out there in the ocean.

But if you are from Martha’s Vineyard, if you are from Maine, If you are from Buzzards Bay or Narragansett Bay, you will likely disagree because you already know menhaden are the lifeblood of an ecosystem that is right now suffering in backyard waterways, nearby estuaries and most coastal ponds. You will say we all miss this essential fish.

Ten years ago, at the start of the lobster problems in Southeastern Massachusetts, lobster fishermen complained to me that one of the key reasons lobsters were in trouble was that striped bass were eating the juvenile lobsters. It appeared true. Many harvested striped bass were found to have their stomachs full of evidence. The lobstermen wanted us to catch more striped bass.

For us, the issue wasn’t that there were too many striped bass, as the lobsterman complained. The issue was that these lean striped bass are hungry and there is not enough forage fish in our waters. The depletion of forage fish in Buzzards Bay, in Vineyard Sound and in many other places was having a hurting impact on other creatures.

Striped bass don’t come to these waters to eat lobsters, they come for their meal of choice. Again, you don’t need a PhD to know that if you were any fish in the ocean, you’d be starving before you’d want to eat a live lobster. Lobsters are fighters. They have claws and shell and a terrible disposition. They hide under or near rocks. When abundant, menhaden are easier to eat.

The menhaden scarcity has another impact on other species. Last summer, we heard from angry fishermen who claim that seals are eating all the striped bass. In the last decade seals are back. They are hungry and they have to eat. My angry fishermen friend told me that the only answer was to shoot to kill the seals, so they don’t eat the striped bass and other fish of choice. That is not a healthy answer. Seals love to eat menhaden too. Without their food of choice, what are they going to eat?

It is pretty clear in management. that ruling the ocean by eliminating or diminishing certain species is harmful. We want the ocean to be restored to its fullness. We want diversity and abundance so that we humans can hand pick what we want to eat. We want a meal that as a resource is sustainable and comes from a healthy place.

Striped bass, bluefish, cod, lobsters, dolphins and seals go where there is food. They don’t have an opinion. To them food is survival. We might think that way too, but we have the greater advantage and responsibility to manage the whole.

Public comment will be accepted until 5 p.m. on January 4, 2017 and should be forwarded to Megan Ware, Fishery Management Plan Coordinator, 1050 N. Highland St, Suite A-N, Arlington, VA 22201; 703.842.0741 (FAX) or at (Subject line: Menhaden PID). The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission is