Menhaden is ‘the liver of the ocean’

Jeff Canha with a 50-pound striped bass. — Courtesy Dan Dittler

Even if you don’t fish, but live near the ocean and want to learn about the food chain, The Most Important Fish in the Sea, by Bruce Franklin, is a must read. This book talks about more than the fish, it explains the role of the menhaden in the ocean’s ecosystem.

Menhaden have been an important part of America’s history. They are the fish that the Native Americans used to teach the Pilgrims to fertilize their corn by burying one near each of their plants. Bruce Franklin describes them as “the liver of the sea.” Swimming in tight, slow moving schools with open mouths, they strain plankton and algae from the ocean.

He tells us how, without the menhaden, the striped bass can no longer spawn in estuaries. Without these filter feeders to clean the water, it becomes choked with toxins so living organisms can’t breathe.

Until 1975 the largest tidal estuary in the country, the waters of the Chesapeake Bay, had billions of menhaden keeping the waters clear and healthy.

For decades, a small fleet of industrial factory ships have been harvesting hundreds of millions of pounds of menhaden annually. The fish are then reduced for Omega oils.

On the Vineyard we have felt the loss of the menhaden. Pogies are another name for these herring  but the fishermen on the Island call them “Bunker.”

There are efforts to control the taking of menhaden up and down the coast, so we are beginning to see more schools coming to the Vineyard. When I first began surf fishing in the mid 1970’s our waters were full of menhaden. The striped bass and bluefish were visually more healthy with full bellies and large girths. Today many of the fish we catch are long and thin compared to the heavy fish we used to catch. Striped bass also eat mussels and crabs but they still need the nourishment from the bunker. Without these large oily fish to feed on, large fish sustain their diet on tiny silverside, sand eels and squid. Menhaden are an oily fish that are crucial to the diet of  large saltwater fishes, from whales to striped bass to sustain their health. The bunker that come to the Vineyard, begin their journey from the Chesapeake area.

In 2017 a pair of Virginia legislative bills designed to change how menhaden fishing is controlled were shot down. Menhaden are currently the only fish species controlled by the general assembly. One of the bills was designed to turn the menhaden fishery over to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, which oversees every other species in Virginia waters.

The other bill would have pushed the menhaden fishery outside of three miles along the Virginia coast, and out to one mile of the shoreline in the Chesapeake Bay and its tributaries.

Huge trawlers, used in conjunction with spotter planes, could easily harvest enough menhaden to destroy the entire population in short order.

This month members of the Cape Cod Commercial Fishermen’s Alliance  meet with federal fisheries managers to discuss the impact of big midwater industrial trawlers working off the Cape’s coast. They are advocating for a buffer zone off the coast that not only protects ocean herring, but also river herring and other fish that are caught and discarded as bycatch. It was a productive meeting attended by many fishermen from all over New England.

First blue marlin of the season

On June 26, Peter Shepardson, my Derby Rebos teammate called to tell me that he caught a blue marlin. It was his first ever blue marlin and I could hear his smile over the phone. It’s also the first one reported in the Northeast this season.  He was with Bill Potter aboard his 25-foot Regulator “Claw Daddy 2.” The fish was 8-feet long and approximately 300 pounds. A dream come true. Congratulations Peter and Bill.

Fluke for Luke tourney approaches

This two-day tournament will run from July 7 at 12am until July 8 at 4 pm. Anglers from all over the Vineyard and some of Luke’s fishing friends from New Bedford will compete for the largest fluke and black sea bass. Minimum size limits will remain the same as last year for both fluke and black sea bass, 17 inches for fluke and 15 inches for black sea bass.

Luke Gurney lost his life two years ago, when he was 48 years old. He was a carpenter, turned commercial  fisherman. He was fishing on his 42-foot open-stern boat, “No Regrets,” setting conch pots off of Great Point on Nantucket when he got tangled in lines and was swept overboard.

The Fluke for Luke tournament was created by his many friends that loved him dearly to help his wife Robyn and his two sons. The money raised is put into a college scholarship fund for the two boys Jacob and Sam.

On Sunday, at the conclusion of this two-day memorial fishing tournament, there is a cookout and huge silent auction held at the Portuguese American Club in Oak Bluffs. Donations are welcome. You can get in touch with anyone of the  organizing committee, John Custer, Joe El-Deiry, David Hearn, Josh Flanders, Steve Kelly, Mark Smith, and Mark “KoKo” Kokoszka.

All are welcome. You don’t need to fish to attend.

Sign up at Dick’s Tackle in Oak Bluffs or Coop’s and Larry’s Tackle in Edgartown.       

Tackle shop report

Congratulations to Jeff Canha on his 50-pounder. That’s the one striped bass fishermen dream of.

Phil Cronin, Captain of Capawock Charters, has found top water action for large striped bass and bluefish. I’ve noticed that many of the huge bass that he posted on Facebook are covered with lice. I think the best is yet to come.

Larry’s Tackle Bass and Blue Battle is in full swing. The leader board has changed many times this last week Go to:

The beaches on Chappaquiddick Chappy Beach Access Hotline: 508.627.8390

Norton Point Beach Access Hotline: 774-310-1110

Don’t forget, never give up a minute before the miracle.

Janet Messineo fishes the coastline of Martha’s Vineyard, where she’s lived since 1966. She is a retired surfcasting guide and taxidermist, former president of the Martha’s Vineyard Surfcasters Association, and both a Derby committee member and participant. She is a frequent source and contributor to newspapers and magazines. Her long-awaited book on fishing will be published by Pantheon Books in June 2019.