I’ll Take Menhaden!

Okay, maybe Rosemary Clooney never sang “I’ll Take Menhaden,” but this fish is lately turning our city into islands of joy.

Reports are coming in from the Newtown Creek, Hudson River, and upper East River that menhaden, locally known as pogy and most often bunker fish, are appearing in huge numbers. The video above was posted by Riverkeeper, the most active nongovernmental estuary environmental litigator in our estuary. That’s great news for whales and other sea mammals, as well as bluefish, striped bass, herons, egrets, and other larger fish predators. You’ll see huge swaths of water dance and glint when bunkers breach to escape predators below. Before they’re ever visible, they ride currents into our estuary as eggs and hatch here, to grow from larvae into adult fish.

Bunkers do more than directly sustain these other cherished species as food. For their ability to clean water, these silvery schoolers can be seen as mobile oysters. As “Four Fish” author Paul Greenberg notes, “An adult menhaden can rid four to six gallons of water of algae in a minute.” Much like huge baleen whales, little bunkers are filter feeders. When their numbers plummet, brown algal tides overtake bays, creating dead zones.

Before European colonization, Native Americans ate these fish and used them as fertilizer because their oiliness is both delectable (fishers say you’ll never have to butter a bunker) and a powerful nutrient. Indeed, the words menhaden and pogy derive from Algonquin terms referencing the fertilizing practice.

Sadly, bunker fish haven’t had a good century. they died in masses in the 1980s when bluefish herded them into hypoxic shallows in the the Long Island Sound. They’ve been overfished for 32 of the past 54 years, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Commercial operators spot schools by airplane, deploy refrigerated ships to the area, and catch bunkers with nets and, because they school so densely, vacuums. A single fish oil and fish meal company, Omega Protein, is responsible for 90% of the nation’s catch. It’s not active in the NYC region.

Interestingly, what could spare the bunker is what it eats: algae. Companies are starting to farm algae in vats to produce omega-3 fatty acids and other goods for nutritional supplements and livestock feeds. The controlled setting also prevents mercury contamination and other potential pollutants from entering human food systems.

Teachers’ Oyster Seed Paddle!

Oyster seed. Photo by Solar One, another participant in the estuary-wide seeding effort.

Oyster seed. Photo by Solar One, another participant in the estuary-wide seeding effort.

August 26.

HarborLAB will take teachers from the Hunters Point Community Middle School on a paddle from LIC to Governors Island (no landing) to pick up oyster seeds from the New York Harbor School. This is a great chance for the school to learn about NY Harbor School‘s innovative curriculum. We’ll then paddle to back to Hunters Point and beyond to Socrates Sculpture Park, where the oyster seed platform will anchor.
Here’s our Facebook event page:
Please also email volunteer@harborlab.org with the subject line “Oyster Paddle” if you’d like to paddle and help.
It’s exciting for HarborLAB to play a small role in seeding great maritime education programs in western Queens!  HarborLAB and NY Harbor School are unrelated organizations with shared goals. HarborLAB Founder Erik Baard invited NY Harbor School Founder Murray Fisher to Long Island City six or seven years ago to meet with a landlord and others about encouraging the establishment of a middle school that might graduate students into the NY Harbor School. Erik also lobbied then-City Council Member Eric Gioia for an estuary-themed middle school. Flash forward some years and Hunter’s Point Community Middle School Principal Sarah Goodman independently had such visions. Ms. Goodman grew up learning about marine ecology and stewardship in New England.

HarborLAB looks forward to being the Hunter’s Point Middle School’s on-water partner, perhaps in concert with CUNY LaGuardia Community College and other community environmental groups and agencies to which we introduced Ms. Goodman. While the nearby waters of Anable Basin, site of great contamination by Standard Oil generations ago, are likely unsuitable for children (especially in sit-on-top kayaks), HarborLAB will arrange educational field trips and will continue to advocate for paddling in Gantry Plaza State Park.  We also strongly advocate for an Anable basin cleanup, and have lobbied for this with state officials and local developers.