EDITORIAL

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OLD PROBLEMS RETURNING?

By Karen Wall

  For the last two years, there has been a great deal of concern and frustration about the deaths of whales and dolphins along the Atlantic Coast, especially in the New York Bight, as pressures have ramped up to bring offshore wind energy projects to the area.
  We’ve gotten accustomed to seeing whales in good numbers in the last several years as they have come closer to shore, feeding on the vast schools of bunker that can turn the Atlantic dark for miles as the bunker swim along feeding a variety of animals on land as well as in the water.
  We’ve also seen a dramatic improvement in the water quality off New Jersey, which was the butt of jokes in the 1980s and early 1990s through no fault of its own, due to garbage washups that originated with polluters and bad garbage practices in other states. These days, the water is so clear photos have spread all over social media showing sparkling, crystal waves tumbling along the beaches that look much like what could be found along Caribbean beaches.
  We have the bait – bunker, or menhaden as it’s formally known — to thank. Our ol’ pal the bunker is the linchpin in these changes. This 1- to 2-pound fish that filters thousands of gallons of water an hour as it feeds on algae and plankton has spent much of the last 20 years cleaning up the water as it gobbles up the algae that made the water less than appetizing, and creating spectacles as predators blitzed the bait schools, sending bunker leaping futilely for their lives.
  New Jersey banned commercial reduction fishing for bunker. It took years of fighting by fishermen and scientists at the state and federal level, to halt the destructive practice, where fish are literally vacuumed out of the ocean with little regard for what is being gathered and turned into fish meal.
  New Jersey banned commercial reduction fishing for menhaden – bunker – in the state’s waters in 2007, but the practice has continued in federal waters, though most of the activity has been confined to the area off Virginia, near the base of the only company still pursuing it: Omega.
  There have been efforts to control Omega’s take, with the decision by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2012 to set, for the first time, a coastwide catch limit for menhaden in over a hundred years. This allows the bunker range to expand North from the Chesapeake Bay. Capt. Paul Eidman wrote in an opinion piece in the Asbury Park Press in 2020. That year, Eidman said, “The ASMFC finally established a new ecological management system to account for the needs of fish and mammals that rely
on bunker.”
  “This management shift from a ‘single species’ to an ‘ecosystem’ approach is an important step forward in marine conservation,” he wrote. And it was a long time coming. Nearly two decades to be exact.
  Now, all of that work and all of those gains are in danger.
  Boats are back off the New Jersey coast, netting hundreds of thousands of bunker that, according to a federal lawsuit, are headed for the Reedville, Virginia, plant where Omega grinds them down and processes them to make Omega 3 fish oil pills and fish meal to feed to farmed salmon and to turn into fertilizer.
  While the boats are in federal waters, just outside the 3-mile limit of state authority, the lawsuit alleges they are operating illegally, with a foreign company controling those boats and sending the caught fish to Omega. This according to an Asbury Park Press report in early June 2024.
  Omega is the only company still doing reduction fishing for bunker, off the Virginia coast, particularly at the mouth of the Chesapeake Bay. The targeting of bunker in an area known as a striped bass nursery has caused significant problems.
  Eidman is one of the founders of Menhaden Defenders, an organization fighting to keep Omega from plundering the stocks of menhaden, and has been sounding the warning bells about the return of the boats off the New Jersey coastline on the group’s Facebook page, where they have been posting the latest developments.
  “There goes the neighborhood … and the whale watching and the bass fishing,” the group said in a June 7 post, when six bunker reduction boats were spotted off Cape May.
  The threat to the bunker population — Omega accounts for about 70 percent of the menhaden caught every year — is very real, and as H. Bruce Franklin warned in his book “The Most Important Fish In The Sea,” we ignore that at our peril.
  I had the opportunity to interview Franklin — who died in May at 90 years old — in 2004 when I was at the Asbury Park Press, and he was passionate in his warnings that we had to pay attention to the status of that fishery.
  Menhaden Defenders and other groups, including Save Our Menhaden, are continuing the fight but as always is the case, the more voices the better. These bait fish are critical to our ecosystem, and the threat is immediate.
  It is hard to understate the potential impacts and the threat this poses to both the fish and mammals as well as the fishing businesses that depend on both.
  There has been a great outcry – justifiably so – over the deaths of whales in the last two years in connection with the fight over offshore wind projects.
  While that issue still needs our attention, we need to pay attention and speak out about Omega’s harmful practices. Years ago, they justified the existence of reduction fishing and their company’s approach because one of the primary products – fish oil rich in Omega 3 – had few competing methods.
  Technology has changed that. Omega 3 fatty acids can be extracted from other sources. It’s high time the laws and the powers that be step up and protect our ecosystem.
  We need to be the ones to push them to act like we did when reduction fishing was banned in New Jersey’s waters 20
years ago.

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