Bunker wars

A commercial bunker boat and its net tender ply the waters off New Jersy. Courtesy Capt. Mickey Melchiondo

By now, saltwater anglers realize the importance of adult menhaden, or bunker, and the symbiotic relationship bunker play within our ecosystem.

Bunker are the true lifeline to the entire striped bass population along the east coast. What's more, bunker are filter feeders, and without them only bacteria and jellyfish can eat the plankton floating in the water.

The complexity here is that jellyfish also eat fish fry as well as fish eggs. In short, bunkers play a pivotal role in balancing the ecosystem.

Right now, the Atlantic Coast, specifically New Jersey, is witnessing a crushing blow to its Atlantic menhaden or bunker fishery with an unprecedented disturbance to the heart of the striped bass migration.

For weeks, large purse-seining vessels have situated themselves immediately off our coast while spotter planes and helicopters locate schools.

Like clockwork, planes and purse-seine vessels work in harmony as huge nets are continually set throughout the day. Most vessels have been adhering to the state legislation requiring them to remain at least three miles offshore.

However, several boats, including the herring fleet from Gloucester, Mass., have found a loophole in the law that allows vessels with bait permits to deploy purse-seine nets within 6/10 of one mile off New Jersey beaches.

Tensions and frustration on the water are high and is so bad that a major war of words along with aggressive maneuverability among all boat captains has become vicious. Anglers, charter captains and commercial fleets are engaged in aggressive bouts on a daily basis.

One charter captain who wished to remain anonymous filed a complaint with the state police as his boat and life was threatened just days ago.

Other captains from the recreational fleet experience a daily display of aggressive boatmanship pushing them out of the way. In fear of getting run over or run aground, these recreational captains are learning to go the opposite direction.

If you were to drop by the commercial docks after successful hauls, you will see on average five to six tractor trailer loads of bunker being caught per vessel each day.

Although recreational anglers understand that commercial fishermen are entitled to earning a living, the abundance of adult menhaden being extracted on a daily basis is alarming. Couple this with the main migration of striped bass passing through our waterways at this time and the disturbance to the striped bass fishery that results, and most would agree that regulations must change.

"On several occasions, I have seen big bass floating belly up behind the purse seining fleet," Captain Jim Gahm said.

Why are bunker so highly sought after? The primary products of bunker are fish meal and fish oil.

Two basic forms of fish meal are produced. When specific fish such as bunker, herring and pollack are harvested, it is solely used as a supplemental protein source fed to livestock.

Through the years, plant derived sources have become unavailable or have become too expensive. In addition, fish meal is used as a bypass protein source for lactating dairy cattle.

Another product, fish oils, has long been used in maintaining a healthy diet for humans.

Omega Protein Company is the commercial fleet using purse seining vessels to catch bunker along the Atlantic Coast as well as in the Gulf of Mexico. An official company press release may explain why so many boats have descended upon our waters and so quickly.

"The Deepwater Horizon oil spill, which has affected our business and has led to increased costs, has not had a material adverse effect on our planned Company-wide fish catch," said Joe von Rosenberg, Omega Protein Chairman and CEO. "Our previously announced operating plan to reconfigure our Gulf of Mexico fishing fleet to avoid the areas affected by the oil spill appears so far to be working well."

"The Company does not routinely announce fish catch statistics but it is doing so in this case because of the uniqueness of the situation created by the oil spill. The Company does not currently intend to update this information or make further announcements regarding fish catch, although it may elect to do so in the future if circumstances dictate."

According to NOAA, New Jersey has long been considered an important alternate fishing ground for commercial bunker fleets. Although I cannot get an official response from Omega Protein, reading between the lines leads me to believe that some (if not all) of these bunker boats from Virginia are the displaced boats that once fished the Gulf of Mexico population of bunker prior to the oil spill.

(Editor's note: Ben Landry, spokesman for Omega Protein, says the Gulf fleet remains there and the company is not fishing off New Jersey. "We haven't sent a boat up there.")

Add to the equation the closure of the herring fishery in New England and our bunker populations are experiencing an unprecedented number of commercial boats while recreational anglers are frustrated and up in arms.

Editor's note: Capt. Chris Gatley can be found with his fishing clients chasing striped bass in front of the Statue of Liberty, or heading offshore to the Atlantic Ocean canyons off the NJ/NY coast for tuna. His articles on cutting-edge fishing techniques can be found in The Fisherman Magazine, and he's a regular presenter at key sports shows during the winter months (when he's not pursuing whatever he can find in East Coast rivers).