Bunker to Bun-Ker Paddle Up the Creek!

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HarborLAB heads for Maspeth. Greg Mocker of WPIX  is at the stern of the Bernie Ente (see flag), named for the pioneering photographer of life on the creek and mentor of Newtown Creek Alliance historian Mitch Waxman. Photo by Diana Chang. 

HarborLAB volunteers and guests recently paddled from Hunters Point to Maspeth on the Newtown Creek to honor United Nations World Oceans Day by learning about menhaden (known as “bunker fish” in local vernacular and as pogi elsewhere) and exploring our Environmental Protection Agency estuary superfund. We also enjoyed some of the best Vietnamese food in NYC at Bun-Ker!

HarborLAB Executive Director Erik Baard shared a bit of menhaden science and lore with participants. Menhaden are essential to the Atlantic Ocean’s food chain. Or as Rutgers University historian H. Bruce Franklin puts it, “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.” These roughly foot-long fish are filter feeders, with each member of their extraordinarily dense schools cleaning up to six gallons of water per hour as they swim. Some have argued that because bunker are mobile (they migrate all along the east coast of North America and Gulf of Mexico), they might be even more valuable than oysters in filtering algal blooms out of estuaries because shellfish ultimately return the excess nutrients they consume to the same waters when they excrete and die. This, however, is in dispute. What’s certain is that a host of predators, from striped bass to whales, depend on the overfished menhaden.

Why is this fish so delectable to seemingly everyone but humans? They’re very bony and oily. But that oil, from eating all that algae, is now so coveted by industry that the species is in peril. The market for DHA and EPA Omega-3 fatty acids is booming as aging Americans seek to protect their brains and hearts with healthy fat supplements. This on top of demand for ground up menhaden for fertilizer, cosmetics, and industrial farm animal and aquaculture feed turned “reduction” into a very lucrative business. This use has a long history, with the species’ name linked to a Native American word for fertilizer. Today a single reduction company, Omega Protein, is responsible for over 80% of the menhaden catch. The balance is an aggregation of bait companies. Omega Protein has vigorously resisted caps on fish landings and most of its product is sold internationally. The company has begun to face competition from biotech companies that are growing algae and other microorganisms directly to harvest for Omega-3 oils and protein.

Menhaden also die in mass within inlets and coves for reasons that aren’t fully understood, though some blame viruses or more often low dissolved oxygen levels. Sadly these smelly “die offs” are how many coastal residents are introduced to menhaden. In the late spring of 2015, the Newtown Creek was littered with dead menhaden.

Biologist and author Carl Safina and co-author Elizabeth Brown neatly summarize “The Good and the Bad for Atlantic Menhaden” for National Geographic.

On our paddle we saw only killifish, which are tough little survivors. We also saw shellfish tucked into crumbling bulkheads and the Billion Oyster Project transfer site hosted by ExxonMobil (the company supports HarborLAB’s safety training as part of its community outreach associated with cleaning up its pollution in Greenpoint, Brooklyn).

One trip participant who was eager to clean up pollution was Greg Mocker, the WPIX news reporter. Greg and his companion were vigorous paddlers who paused to remove plastic trash as they went. He was astonished at the beauty of the inner reaches of the creek, where marsh plants and a fringe of trees soften the industrial atmosphere created by recycling plants, sewage barges, and fuel tanks.

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WPIX reporter Greg Mocker is savage in his zeal to clean the creek. Photo by Diana Chang.

We landed at historic Plank Road, or today’s 58th Road in Maspeth. We tied up to rebar loops in concrete to avoid damaging wooden artifacts from an old “penny bridge” that crossed the creek. Finding Bun-Ker from our landing take a bit of urban bushwhacking through a street clouded by construction material dust and an active truck lot. Erik led the crew over and returned to babysit he boats with Scott Wolpow. The Newtown Creek Alliance cleaned up Plank Road and added greenery and educational signage. During our time there, Erik seeded areas overtaken by mugwort with native pokeweed. The diners came back smiling and clearly sated by their delicacies.

What a wonderful introduction to the creek and “the most important fish in the sea!” By popular demand, we’ll repeat the trip soon.

Photo gallery below by Diana Chang.

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