BIG BUNKER MISSING FROM THE SURF THIS YEAR
Big bunker missing from surf this year, anglers say
Published in the Asbury Park Press 11/12/04
Scientists starting to study impact of huge menhaden harvests
Striped bass fishermen who are anticipating a migration of big menhaden along the beach this fall may have to start thinking about next year.
Inshore waters are teeming with bunkers, but they are not fish that bring big bass in from Long Island or New England. Most of these bunkers are only two or three inches long.
Dave Arbeitman, co-owner of The Reel Seat, Brielle, reflected on the scarcity of big bunkers while he was surf fishing Monday and Tuesday.
"You don't see any big bunkers," he said. "All you see are these peanuts.
"This looks like another fall where the big bass have nothing to eat," he said. "When the migration comes the big fish may shoot right through or end up offshore. The next thing you know they'll be in Cape May."
Arbeitman reminded that the big baitfish should be moving south along the beach with the juveniles.
"If we had the big bunkers, trollers would be matching the hatch with bunker spoons, but not so far," he said.
Instead, trollers are pulling Stretch lures or rigs. Some have been trolling tubes, but most are using the soft shad lures, the closest match to the small bunkers.
The scarcity of big bunkers has not inhibited surf anglers from snagging the smaller fish and catching school bass on them.
Dennis Palmatier of Murphy's Hook House, Dover Township, said he is still selling clams, but a lot of fishermen not fishing artificials for bass are turning to the snagged fish.
"I'm selling a lot of snag rigs and weighted treble hooks," he said. "They're snagging the peanut bunkers and fishing with them as is."
Fresh bunkers are not easy to find on the commercial docks now, which is not surprising given the enormous harvest of menhaden in the New Jersey half of Raritan Bay and along the beach this year.
The days when the pound nets and the seiner Belatrix were supplying bunkers to New Jersey fishermen have been almost forgotten with the expansion of the fleet that even includes New England boats today.
The New Jersey bunker harvest for bait in 1991 was around 2 million pounds. Today it is averaging more than 30 million pounds.
Thomas P. Fote, one of New Jersey's representatives on the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, pointed out that no one anticipated the New Jersey commercial harvest would have exploded to such an extent when the bait regulations were written.
"New Jersey is supplying the whole coast with menhaden for bait," he said. "They're being shipped to states like Maryland and Massachusetts. New Jersey is the big supplier now."
Fote said the ASMFC, which met this week, decided not to move ahead on further coastal menhaden management this fall.
"They're putting another workshop together," he said. "And they'll probably be dealing with caps on the harvest and so forth next year."
New York wisely prohibited seiners from taking menhaden of any size in its half of Raritan Bay years ago. The grounds thus became a partial sanctuary for spawning fish.
Unfortunately, the big schools of adult fish do not stay in New York waters, but drift across the state line into New Jersey waters, where they are immediately vulnerable to netting.
Marine biologists are aware of the problems in the Chesapeake Bay where the bunkers are important as forage for game fish, particularly stripers, and as filter feeders that can reduce microscopic plant life in the bay.
The Virginia menhaden industry still has a firm grip on the state legislature in that state, and a bill to allow marine biologists to manage the fishery was rejected last spring.
Still, biologists want to take a look at the role menhaden play in the overall marine ecology, and, hopefully, progress will be made.
Recreational fishermen have been convinced for decades that the commercial harvest of menhaden has affected the inshore game fish fishery, but scientists, often with ties to the menhaden industry, resisted the idea. Now that resistance is lessening.
A menhaden workshop to address the ecological role of the species was held in the middle of October in Alexandria, Va., but the federal, state and academic people who attended decided to continue studying the species and its niche in the marine environment.
Chesapeake Bay anglers are concerned that the menhaden stocks have been hit so hard in the estuary that all fish are being impacted by the loss of forage. New Jersey anglers are concerned primarily with the effect the absence of big bunkers has on the striped bass fishery.
The scientific community has long rejected recreational concerns about the effects of netting by using coastal stock assessments, which are usually favorable. This fall, for example, there is no lack of bunkers. The numbers are there, but not the size.
In almost every other fishery, biologists and management officials want a balance of year-classes in the stock structure. The presence of all sizes is an indication of a healthy stock.
The ASMFC's Atlantic menhaden board approved Addendum I to Amendment I to the interstate menhaden management plan in August, which modified the plan's reference points, schedule for stock assessments and habitat provisions.
The Atlantic menhaden technical committee found in its 2003 stock assessment that menhaden are not overfished and overfishing is not occurring on a coastwide basis.
The assessment was peer reviewed by the Southeast Data, Assessment and Review Panel, and a new modeling approach, called the forward projection model, and fecundity- (fertility) based biological reference points were used to determine stock status.
The scientists believe the reference points are more accurate, and take into account the number of mature eggs. It also changed the plan's fishing mortality target and threshold levels.
Rather than conducting a full-scale annual assessment, the addendum establishes a three-year assessment cycle to allow for the increased complexity and data requirements of the new model.
Further, it updates the plan's habitat section and includes descriptions of spawning, larval and juvenile habitat as well as recommendations for the conservation and restoration of menhaden habitat.
How inappropriate to call this planet Earth when it is quite clearly Ocean.
Arthur C. Clarke