At this same time last year, Omega Protein Corp. out of Reedville, Virginia, (parent company Cooke Seafood) sent FOUR 200-foot-long reduction ships up to the New York Bight for two days. Each one has the holding capacity of 1.5-2 million fish each, enabling a total removal of EIGHT MILLION bunker from key waters in the fall, just before our striped bass migration arrives.
When I learned that the fleet was off of New Jersey, I quickly trailered up to Atlantic highlands, launched and ran my 20-foot center console out seven miles (roughly to the end of the Ambrose channel) to take pictures and video to document exactly what was happening.
Know that as long as they remain in federal waters, (outside the three-mile line) it’s all legal, stamped and approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) which continues the archaic practice of managing these fish just like all the others, for “maximum sustainable yield.”
Legality aside, two major factors are “overlooked” by managers: localized depletion, which can ruin fishing nearby, and the role of menhaden in the ecosystem providing nutrition for the marine food web.
It would be a different story if the boats were smaller and family owned like they used to be. Back then, private commercial fishing boat owners would head out for the day, take 50,000 or so bunkers and head back to the dock, offload and have a beer. Things have changed, not just for the menhaden fishery, but for fisheries all over the world. The little guys are out, and massive industrial scale vessels now rule the sea. When these big blue ships pull into an area and setup shop, there is nothing left when they leave except the mile-long nasty scum slick and the stench of death that drifts out of the vessels.
The seagulls pick at the scraps and, as can be expected, the predators, whether they are humpback whales, striped bass or cobia, all leave the area and seek food elsewhere. Fishermen come to fish and find the area is barren of all signs of life. Gamefish are nowhere to be found.
Go ahead and look on YouTube for Menhaden Defenders, and you can watch what I witnessed. Complete with purse boats running down the schools, plane overhead directing them over the schools and crews vacuuming the fish on board the massive factory ship. (Direct links to videos are here and here.) I filmed and watched as they filled the ships to the gunwales and then steamed back home 275 miles to Virginia to grind them up into fish meal and fish oil.
The big question is, if the bunker stocks are as healthy as the ASMFC and Omega say they are, then why do they have to travel all the way to Jersey to catch them? Something is very wrong; clearly the system has been rigged by the good ol’ boys for years, and our fishing and waters suffer because of it.
Yes, the East Coast’s favorite little forage fish is ground up, pelletized and shipped overseas to feed fish farms for foreign profit as America’s coastal ecology and economies struggle to survive. Let that sink in.
Fishermen in New Jersey should be aware that the carnage has already begun right off our shores in August of 2019. Omega has been harvesting massive bunker schools off of Atlantic City and Cape May, New Jersey over the past couple of weeks. Each Sunday, my team of volunteers at Menhaden Defenders tracks these planes and can see the flight paths. A spotter plane leaves Virginia and flies north along the Jersey shore. By late Sunday evening, they pack up the crew and head out to sea. By Monday morning, they have been directed to the best schools. We can see where the fleet is headed, and it can number six to eight ships at times. You can track the vessels online just like we do, using maritime ship traffic websites and following the Automatic Identification System (AIS) movements of all commercial vessels.
The table is set for disaster, right where we live and fish. At a time when our striped bass and other gamefish need food the most, millions of bunker will be ground up and reduced into salmon food. I have been fishing out in the Bight all summer, watching 40-foot-long Humpback whales breaching out of the sea, mouths wide open and hundreds of bunker spilling out. The bunker schools grow by the day, and it’s just fantastic to see miles and miles of adult bunker in our area after decades of working to restore the populations to a healthy level.
Sunday, I will get a report from my plane spotters that will tell me if this week we will see the big blue ships steam north to Jersey again, vacuum all the bunker up and ship the pellets off to Canadian salmon farms that Cooke Seafood owns. This is madness on multiple levels, and so few anglers get involved and stand up and fight.
The struggle is real, people. Join the fight today because the future of our sport and coastal waters depends on it. Visit www.menhadendefenders.org to take action.