One April, I went fishing for striped bass at the cooling water outflow of a power plant on Long Island.
For as far as I could see — it must have been at least a quarter-mile — the surface of the plume of warmer water flowing into the Long Island Sound was alive with fins and nervous splashes. The commotion wasn’t made by stripers, but rather by menhaden, a kind of herring and one of the most important sources of food for East Coast stripers.
I was hoping there would be stripers underneath this massive school of menhaden, or “bunker” as they’re called on Long Island, so I tried casting into the school and letting my fly sink below it. But there were too many bunker, many of them 12-15 inches long. A fly couldn’t move in without accidentally sticking one.
Several times in the fall, as I have confessed in this space, I have found myself fishing for stripers in the presence of thick shoals of baby menhaden — “peanut bunker,” to the locals — and had the same problem: too many baitfish in the way to retrieve a fly. Each cast came back with a wriggling peanut bunker on the Deceiver’s hook.
Soon, the Deceiver started going back out with the peanut still wriggling, and while it couldn’t be called fly-fishing, it was a fun experiment that resulted in some large fish being hooked.
There may or may not have been bass under that huge school of bunker in front of the power plant (there probably were), but I don’t recall ever seeing a school of peanut bunker where bass weren’t actively, visibly feeding.
When you look down into the water at your feet at a school of peanut bunker, it looks like waving grass until you realize you’re seeing thousands of small fish. They function like grass, too. Menhaden schools are like moving meadows of nutritious grain for grazing stripers and other game fish.
But menhaden have also become a lucrative cash crop for companies making everything from pet food to omega-3 diet supplements. Ships now vacuum bunker up from the sea with ruthless efficiency. According to one news report, the estimated number of herring along the East Coast has fallen from 70 billion to under eight billion.
And while I’ve been lucky enough to stand in the middle of schools of peanut bunker in skinny water in the dead of night and experienced off-the-hook fishing, I have also gone back to the same spots many times in many seasons to find no bunker, and no bass.
That’s the nature of coastal fishing; there’s no guarantee the fish will be where they were yesterday. But overfishing could be causing more and more striper habitat to be empty of this vital forage fish. Fishing advocates and environmentalists have expressed grave concern in recent years that too many menhaden were being removed from the coastal waters.
Stripers Forever (disclosure: I’m on its board) asserts menhaden “are of utmost importance to the survival of wild striped bass and that they have been overfished to a point of serious concern.” And this comes at a time when there are signs the striped bass population may itself be in serious trouble.
All this is what made last week’s vote of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission so important.
Friday, the ASMFC voted to cut the annual catch of menhaden by 20 percent, to 170,800 metric tons, in 2013. The vote came after a long hearing in a packed meeting room in Virginia. It was the first time a coast-wide limit had been placed on menhaden harvest. The ASMFC had received 126,000 comments from the public, 90 percent in favor of restricting the bunker catch.
This is a step in the right direction. Marine resources are finite, and over-consuming them causes problems throughout the ecosystem. Striped bass are already experiencing low spawning rates and mycobacteriosis infection, and in some areas, anglers and guides are catching fewer and fewer every year. The last thing we should be doing is making it harder for them to find food.
Omega Protein, the company doing most of the menhaden fishing, said reducing the catch would threaten jobs in in the mid-Atlantic region. That’s a concern that should be taken seriously.
But starving the striped bass of the East Coast would threaten guides, charters, marinas, bait-and-tackle shops, motels, restaurants and gas stations from the Carolinas to Maine — many, many thousands of jobs.
Protecting this important forage fish, on the other hand, is a step toward saving one of the world’s great sport fisheries, and all the economic activity that comes with it.
Morgan Lyle’s commentary appears regularly in The Daily Gazette. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.