View Full Version : Menhaden more critical than people think

05-14-2009, 05:11 AM
During the late 1960s, things were different, much different on the Thames River. Every small brook and stream flowing into the river, from New London to the Greeneville Dam and Uncas Leap, supported at least small runs of river herring, mostly alewives, locally known as buckeys.

American shad were present, but in very low numbers, until the late ’70s, when restoration efforts by the Department of Environmental Protection began to kick in.

Every spring, as water temperatures warmed from April and the buckeys started spawning to summertime levels, hordes of menhaden would clog the Thames River.

A natural part of this annual event was the late-summer die-offs that would create a stench that could be detected for miles down wind.

By the late 1970s, buckeys were still abundant and the most popular hook bait around, but unfortunately, there were not very many stripers there to eat them. Striped bass populations had been reduced by heavy overfishing and pollution, with its resulting habitat loss.

At one point during that period, it was barely worth the effort it took to scoop net some buckeys for bait from local streams because there weren’t enough stripers around to eat them.

During that same time period, commercial factory-level fishing operations more than decimated menhaden (also called moss bunker) populations along the entire Atlantic coast.

As a result of over-harvest, menhaden functionally disappeared from the menu around that time.

Being that striped bass also were present in vastly reduced numbers, the vacancy in the food chain niche they held quickly was filled by bluefish, which dominated local rod-and-reel fisheries through the ’70s into the early ’80s and periodically to the present.

Stringent regulations designed to protect the remaining striped bass stocks were implemented during the mid-1980s, which included a ban on the commercial fisheries that had destroyed striper populations in Chesapeake Bay, with some help from pin hookers and net fisheries here in the north.

Population boom

As a result of the protection, striped bass were produced in a few large, dominant year classes in both major spawning areas — Chesapeake and the Hudson River. Ten years later, stripers were back — big time — filling rivers and coastlines with numbers that far exceeded even what many once called “the good old days.”

From the ’90s on, hundred-fish days were not out of the ordinary for anglers who knew the spots and techniques in the Thames River from November through May or June.

Hordes of these fish would eat their way northward every spring. As these large year classes aged and changed their food sources, other species began to be affected by their predatory abundance.

As striper populations have increased, while other species such as fluke, scup and winter flounder have been regulated to the point they are not available for most of the fishing year, these bass have absorbed much of the fishing pressure that once had been directed to other species.

Other prey

Because menhaden were not there in sufficient numbers to support the huge population of striped bass that was created back in the 1980s, every other possible source of prey has been devoured by this aggressive, omnivorous predator.

The result is an imbalance balance between predator and prey in our coastal ecosystems.

Menhaden are the most important fish in the sea for two reasons: They feed everything above them in the food pyramid, and they are literally like a living filter system for our waters because they eat detritus and turn it into their oily, high energy flesh.

While menhaden were functionally missing from the food chain, striped bass (along with bluefish and other predatory species) may have literally eaten once-large populations of river herring, American shad and contributed to the demise of winter flounder, fluke and other species through predation around the edges.

The importance menhaden once had, ecologically speaking, is documented in what should be required summer reading for every fisherman and politician in America, a very interesting historical account of the demise of menhaden in our country, a book called “The Most Important Fish in the Sea,” by writer/historian Bruce Franklin, printed by Island Press of Washington, D.C.

Likely because of striper predation, buckeys are scarce enough that none of the New England states allow their harvest. While menhaden numbers have been increasing slowly during the past half decade or so, stripers are turning their attention once again to this species, which has on an annual basis sustained most of the major inshore predators in the Atlantic since the beginning of time.

Last week, the first schools of menhaden appeared in Norwich Harbor, an event that always is followed by a burst of local catches of keeper-sized (28-inch minimum length) stripers. Every year, when the bunker come in, stripers of four feet in length or longer are caught right here in Norwich Harbor by anglers using them as live hook baits.

05-14-2009, 08:27 PM
I'm dying to land a good sized striped bass. Growing up in the 70's and 80's they were very scarce and took on an almost mythical quality as my Dad told me of catching them "as long as your leg" while we landed bluefish after bluefish. I've only landed one schoolie two years ago fishing the CT river above Hartford with Astro. I don't think he understood my excitment at catching a striper, even that smaller one. Maybe this will be the year to finally land one the size my Dad spoke of.