Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Save The Fish, Save The Bay

This post was published in the Spring 2014 issue of Tides, Save The Bay's biannual magazine.


Tom Kutcher 
Narragansett Baykeeper

The Atlantic menhaden has been called the most important fish in Narragansett Bay. Locally referred to as pogy or bunker, this common fish is not widely recognized. People don’t eat it because it’s oily, pungent, and loaded with bones. However, menhaden are well known to many who have spent time fishing on the Bay. 

Menhaden are used as bait and chum by recreational fishermen, and as bait by lobstermen. In the summer and early fall, they are the most abundant fish in the Bay, sometimes numbering in the tens of millions. On calm days, large schools of menhaden can be spotted flapping at the surface or jumping clear out of the water to escape hungry bluefish and striped bass. Indeed, menhaden are the most important food source for these popular game fishes, luring them up into the Bay every year, with anglers not far behind. 

But menhaden are so much more. As filter feeders, they serve the keystone role of converting widely abundant plankton (microscopic plants and animals) into fleshy biomass (the menhaden themselves). This provides two benefits that make them so vital to the health of the Bay. 

First, menhaden provide food for species that don’t eat plankton. They are a critical part of the Bay’s food web, affecting other species directly and indirectly. Along with bluefish and stripers, menhaden are an important direct food source for a host of Bay species, including summer flounder, weakfish, black sea bass, lobsters, crabs, wading birds, diving ducks, osprey, and seals.

Atlantic Menhaden
Courtesy: Maine Department of Marine Resources
But menhaden influence species indirectly, too. When they’re not abundantly available, striped bass focus their feeding to lobsters and crabs. It’s estimated that striped bass consume three times as many lobsters as the lobster fishery takes every year. This suggests that a lack of menhaden puts both lobsters and lobstermen at risk. 

Second, menhaden remove nutrients from the water column by consuming them, growing (turning the nutrients into fish), and swimming out of the Bay at the end of the season. Excessive nutrients in the water, mostly nitrogen from our waste and stormwater runoff, can lead to algae blooms, murky water, dead zones, and fish kills. Menhaden have the potential to remove a significant proportion of the Bay’s excessive nutrients. 

These benefits rely on an abundant population of menhaden remaining in the Bay for the bulk of the season. But, any time there are more than two million pounds of menhaden in the Bay (less than one tenth of historic levels), the Rhode Island Department of Environmental Management opens the Bay to a private industrial purse seine fishery that uses aircraft to spot the schools, and then sends out a huge boat to scoop up 120,000 pounds per day. While the current regulations recognize the value of a base population of menhaden in the Bay, they fail to consider that two million pounds is a small fraction of historic levels. It’s not good enough. 

Save The Bay is committed to restoring Narragansett Bay’s menhaden population to healthy levels. This February, Save The Bay proposed a ban on purse seining for menhaden in the Bay and Rhode Island coastal waters. Our goal is to see menhaden restored for the benefit of all, not managed for the profit of few.

- Tom

The Narragansett Baykeeper is affiliated with the Waterkeeper Alliancewhich now has more than 175 programs worldwide. They are both part of network of specialists with a passion for defending the environment and a devotion to working in their communities. 

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