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Jul 16, 2019 10:28 AMPublication: The East Hampton Press & The Southampton Press

Bunker Are The Problem?

Bluefin tuna, like this on caught by Rob Carr, have been giving East End anglers an opportunity to catch pelagic species closer to home.
Jul 16, 2019 10:59 AM

This may sound hysterical, but I have come to the conclusion that the resurgence of bunker on the East Coast has been one of the worst things to happen to striped bass since haul seining was banned in the 1980s.It may seem an ironic, antithetical and even harebrained theory, I know, since it was largely striped bass fishermen and those concerned with helping the striped bass populations who pushed for the regulatory changes that led to the mushrooming bunker population of the last decade. And they were right to push for those changes, and the effects have been both amazingly successful and ecologically wonderful in almost every way.

But when it comes to striped bass, and the condition of their populations right now, I am starting to think that the bunker explosion at this point in time has been a major detriment to the species.

Bunker have long been the species of baitfish most associated with striped bass. They are almost shadows of one another in the history and lore of the striped bass fishery, and of the ecological world in which they are each observed regularly by humans.

And so “we” were smart in seeing that reversing the course of dwindling bunker stocks was an important step to ensuring the long-term health and vitality of striped bass stocks. Well-fed striped bass are healthier (we humans rely on bunker for our fish oil pills as well, after all) and should be more likely to spawn with great fecundity and grow stronger and faster as they age toward sexual maturity.

The problem is that the reemergence of such a robust buffet of the striped bass’s favorite meal has made striped bass a little too easy for humans to track down and kill.

Much of it is coincidence—and all of it is really a human problem. But the re-appearance of giant schools of bunker were the catalyst that started a slaughter that I don’t think fisheries managers have accounted for in their consideration of how to manage striped bass. Frankly, it all happened so fast, it would have been hard for something as slow to react as government to get a handle on it a heck of a lot sooner.

Starting in about 2010 or 2011, a couple of years after most states put major new limitations on the industrial-scale purse sein harvesting of bunker for fish meal and fish oil, the bunker schools that move up and down the East Coast between Massachusetts and the Carolinas started growing exponentially. By 2014, schools of bunkers acres across—literally hundreds of millions of fish in one place—were common sights up and down the coast again.

One of the places they just naturally paused in their annual spring and fall journeys is the New York Bight. And it is there, in what should be a happy coincidence of Mother Nature’s programming, where the vast majority of striped bass come through on their own annual north-south migration between spring spawning grounds in the Chesapeake and the Hudson River and their summer haunts off Montauk and New England.

At about the same time, there were some things happening in the human world that conspired to suddenly bring a lot more attention on fishing for striped bass. The economy was booming, as it charged out of the financial struggles of the Great Recession, and a lot of folks had the dough on hand. Also, Facebook and Instagram were making photos of yourself doing fun things with cool clothing, equipment or “toys” a valuable commodity in itself.

So there were lots of people with money in their pockets seeing their friends who had been avid fishermen for a long time showing off pictures of themselves with big fish and cool fishing gear in beautiful places. This brought lots more people to the water with their own cool boats and gear and tackle, and their own desire for a photo with a large fish that they had conquered.

And where are there more people than basically anywhere else on the East Coast? On the land surrounding the New York Bight.

I would guess there are more than 20 million people living within a one-hour drive of the various inlets and harbors that provide easy access to the New York Bight. Even though people inclined to go fishing and having the access to a boat in that region is a small percentage of that overall, it still tallies up to a lot of fishermen.

The cherry on top of the whole coincidental nightmare for striped bass is that when they are feeding on bunker, striped bass are very easy to locate and very easy to catch. You don’t even have to be an especially skilled fisherman to catch a trophy-sized striped bass anymore.

Whereas before the bunker resurgence one had to be quite dedicated to learning the patterns and habits of the species, and often spend late nights prowling some quite inhospitable regions of the ocean to catch them, now someone just has to know a person with a boat who wants to go out in the middle of the day and scan the horizon until a school of bunker is spotted, snag one with a big hook, and let it swim around until a striped bass eats it.

So, what this has meant is that there are now, I believe, far more fishermen fishing with far more “success” catching and killing far more striped bass than there were just 10 years ago. And I don’t think that fisheries’ surveys have been accounting for that demographic shift when they estimate how many striped bass are dying at the hands of fishermen.

None of this is to say that the industrial harvesting of bunker should not have been stopped, of course, or that bunker stocks themselves should not be protected and encouraged to expand. The problem is a human one catalyzed by the coincidence of two natural phenomena.

What is to be done about it? That must also be a human problem.

Nonetheless, catch ’em up. See you out there.

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You are right that fisheries managers do not factor in other species when setting catch limits for bunker or other forage fish. The Atlantic States Fisheries Commission (ASFMC) will vote in early 2020 on whether to change this policy and move to a more comprehensive model that will factor in predator/prey relationships. If you want the population of striped bass to be considered when setting bunker catch limits contact the New York State ASFMC Commissioners and let them know you want bunker ...more
By J Gans (4), Southampton on Jul 18, 19 3:53 PM