The return of a major food fish has brought whales and larger fish back to New York waters

Whale sightings from New York beaches became common after the menhaden catch was limited. 

The return of a major food fish has brought whales and larger fish back to New York waters, but conservation groups fear factory ships may reverse those gains. 

Seven years ago, fishery managers sharply limited commercial fishing of menhaden - or bunker fish - in Atlantic coastal waters. Menhaden are harvested to make pet food, fertilizer and fish oil. But according to Carl LoBue, New York Ocean Program director at The Nature Conservancy, the limit has been raised three times since then, and now is higher than it was in 2012.

"Now, out-of-state ships have been steaming up the coast to harvest massive amounts of menhaden from areas off of New York and New Jersey, where these areas are supporting whale and dolphin feeding aggregations,” LoBue said.

In 2017, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission approved an increase of more than 200,000 metric tons in the annual menhaden catch off the East Coast.

LoBue said he believes the commission is ignoring important considerations when they set limits on the catch.

"They have yet to factor in the ecological and economic value of leaving menhaden in the water before they calculate how many can be harvested out,” he said. “And that is a big change that's long overdue, and needs to happen soon."

The commission is made up of representatives from each of the 15 Atlantic coastal states, including New York. 

New York has jurisdiction over commercial fishing within three miles of its coast. While that's just a small fraction of the area where menhaden are harvested, LoBue noted there are steps the state can take to extend some protection. 

"The New York State Legislature can finish what it started last year and pass a law preventing these industrial-scale menhaden harvest practices in New York State waters,” LoBue said.

He added that menhaden close to shore play a vital role in reducing excess nitrogen by consuming the plankton that absorbs it.

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