The real reason why you're suddenly seeing whales in N.J. and N.Y. waters
NJ Advance Media for NJ.com By Brian Donohue
November 25, 2016 at 10:00 AM, updated November 25, 2016 at 5:27 PM
If you've spent any time walking the beaches or boating the ocean waters of New Jersey or New York in recent weeks, you've likely been treated to spectacle that has been a rarity in these parts for most of the past century or so: whales.
They've been seemingly everywhere.
Breaching just past the sandbars in Asbury Park.
Swimming past groups of surfers in Rockaway Beach.
Bumping into boats off Belmar.
And this week's ultimate cetacean sensation: a humpback whale swam up the Hudson River for a photo op in front of the George Washington Bridge.
Besides inspiring a chorus of oohs and aahs, the increase in sightings is adding a blubbery new wrinkle to a raging debate over a far smaller fish: the Atlantic menhaden. It's the menhaden, also known as "bunker" -- clumsy, multidinous, slow swimming virtual floating hamburgers -- that those whales are chasing.
Described by some biologists as literally "The Most Important Fish in the Sea," menhaden feed on phytoplankton, turning microscopic plant life into easy to catch protein for predators ranging from bluefish and striped bass to osprey and bald eagles. And, yes, humpback whales, whose local populations were removed two months ago from the federal government's endangered species list.
But the story of why Atlantic menhaden is suddenly so plentiful is a complicated -- and controversial -- one, pitting environmentalists and anglers against commercial fishing operations, with both sides claiming science is on their side.
The recent explosion in marine life in area waters, environmentalist and recreational fisherman say, is the direct result of rules put in place in by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2012 that cut by 20 percent the amount of bunker that could be harvested by commercial fishing operations.
It marked the first time that bunker -- which are turned into pet food, lobster bait, aquaculture food and fish oil supplements -- had been subject to quotas. That means there's more food in this region than ever before for not just whales, but species like striped bass and bluefish.
"The fall of 2016 is going to go down in history,'' said Paul Eidman, a charter fishing boat captain from Tinton Falls and founder of an online campaign called "Menhaden Defenders." "This is just awesome and we've only been doing this since December of 2012. It's been what, three seasons? This is what moderation looks like."
But not everyone is such a fan of the restrictions. Even as the whales were gulping down bunker along the coast of New Jersey, the ACMFC has been pushing the commercial quotas back up closer to pre 2012 catch levels. Last year, the catch limit was raised 10 percent, with the ACMFC citing data that showed bunker were not being overfished.
And, then, three weeks ago, the council voted to raise the commercial catch limits another 6.5 percent.
That move has been cheered by commercial fishing operations who argue the limits were never necessary and simply jeopardized an industry that employs hundreds of people from New Jersey to Virginia, where the largest menhaden processing operation, Omega Protein Corp, is located.
"The fact that there's a lot of fish around has nothing do with reducing these quotas," said Jeff Kaelin, spokesman for Lund's Fisheries, a Cape May commercial fishing company that sells bunker as lobster bait. The increased number of whale sightings is simply the result of smaller fish growing to a larger size due to "environmental conditions."
"The stock was not overfished,'' he said. "It's never been."
Kaelin said the 20 percent coast-wide reduction translated into a roughly 50 percent cut for New Jersey companies that harvest bunker, because it shut down the fishery early in the year and put the state's crucial fall harvest off limits.
"If the science says we need to cut back we will, but in this case we feel very strongly that we're underfishing the stock,'' he said.
Paul L. Sieswerda, a retired curator at the New England Aquarium began running seal watching boat tours of local waters from a dock in Staten Island in the late 2000's, but in recent years, with more whales showing up, has begun running whale watches under the name Gotham Whale. He is currently conducting studies of the local whale population which he says are here for one reason -- to eat bunker.
"This situation is so interesting and so brand new and we're right on top of it," he said.
Anecdotally, Sieswerda said, it's clear the 2012 quotas have resulted in more whales coming to the area. The challenge, he said, will be backing that up with science to keep bunker limits in place in the face of heavy opposition from the commercial netters who cite studies showing just the opposite.
Sieswerda was deep into a description of humpback whale hunting strategies when he abruptly ended our phone call.
"I'm getting another call," he told me. "I have to take it. Someone's calling saying there's a whale right off the Battery in Manhattan."
Brian Donohue may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org Follow him on Twitter @briandonohue. Find NJ.com on Facebook.
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