With warmer waters over the past five years, there has been an uptick in the menhaden population

school of menhaden


Menhaden fish

The most desired bait for fishermen of Long Island and New Jersey is known as bunker.  Bunker is a colloquial name for the species known as the Atlantic Menhaden.  Menhaden is a forage fish that is essential for the ocean food web.  Unfortunately for them, every larger fish and mammal swimming in the New York Bight (the sea east and south of New York Harbor) thrive on Menhaden.  Local fishermen are disturbed to hear that bunker numbers in the Bight diminish because of industrialized fishery as it has a direct correlation on the number of larger game fish populating their favorite fishing spots.  Earlier this decade, the decline was especially traumatic.

However, with warmer waters over the past five years, there has been an uptick in the menhaden population.  As climate change has moved Caribbean and Gulf water species northward, the entire ecosystem has also shifted in this northerly direction up the U.S. coastline.  Most significantly, lobsters off New England have moved into Canadian waters to find the cooler temperatures on the ocean floor.  Recently, warm-water sharks typically abundant off of Florida and the Carolina’s are now visiting Long Island.  Of course, another contributing factor is that the sharks may be following the greater numbers of menhaden migrating up to New York and New England.

As a result, Americans are getting their lobsters from Canada, tuna fishing boats coming out of Montauk are filled to capacity, and the incidence of shark sightings are breaking records along Long Island beaches.


Humpback whale eating Menhaden Photo by: Mitchell Steinhardt

The whale population in the New York Bight has also been on the increase.  More humpbacks are regularly feeding on menhaden.  The presence of whales outside of New York City is now commonplace and it is no longer seasonal.  Monitoring devices such as the Melville buoy built by the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute identify humpbacks, sei, fin, and right whales throughout the year.

Humpback whale eating Menhaden Photo by: Mitchell Steinhardt

Finally, just three weeks ago, the American Princess whale watching tour was permitted to re-open as Covid-19 restrictions were lifted.  Gotham Whale is a not for profit organization that routinely accompanies the American Princess into the New York Bight to catalog all ocean mammals.  Their naturalists are happy to report many sightings so far this year.


But there is a war taking place in the waters along the United States East coast.  For most of us living in the metropolitan area, we know little about it.  The Atlantic Menhaden has been a staple bounty for one specific company whose trawlers come out of Virginia to cast their nets into the New York Bight.  The Omega Protein Company, part of a conglomerate owned by Cooke, a Canadian firm, is responsible for removing millions of menhaden from our waters every year.  Menhaden is targeted as it accounts for the greatest source of omega fish oil, livestock feed, and other desirable consumer goods. The main use is for feed for Cooke’s fish farms around the world.

When New York Harbor Channel first interviewed Paul Sieswerda of Gotham Whale three years ago, we learned of his organization’s effort to not only catalog ocean mammals, but reduce the menhaden fishing quota presently allowed by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.  Like all commercial operations that rely on government regulations, the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition has at least two dozen large ocean fishing companies within its ranks.  This organization has traditionally lobbied and influenced the governing body to allow an excessive slaughter of menhaden.


For casual fishing enthusiasts, divers, boaters, and admirers of the sea, it is important to get involved to protect your environment.  Establishing a manageable program for forage species of fish is essential.  You can sign any number of petitions that have been circulated to help maintain a healthy menhaden population in the New York Bight to allow the ecosystem to thrive.  Gotham Whale is dedicated to the sea life that calls the New York Bight home.  Here is the link for Gotham Whale’s petition to stop the Omega Fleet from over-fishing our waters.

Gotham Whale is aligned with other ecological preservation groups to prevent the collapse of the species in northern waters such as the Menhaden Defenders.  The national organization called the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership (TRCP) is also concerned with saving the menhaden, with greater emphasis this year in the waters outside the Chesapeake Bay where the fight for menhaden is just as important.  TRCP lobbies to influence reduced caps and put in place Ecological Management that will consider the impact on other species by fisheries managers.

These alliances will hopefully bring greater weight to the fight within this decade.  In doing so, ocean mammals will no doubt flourish in New York waters and more of us will be able to share their magnificence just outside of New York Harbor.  The ask of Gotham Whale is to establish a prohibition of industrialized fishing for menhaden within twenty miles from New York Harbor, an area where we know whales feed.  A small step to keep a healthy ecosystem in the New York Bight.