Whales have returned to New York! Help us protect them.
Whale near Long Island Whales have returned to New York! Help us protect them. ©: Great South Bay Images

Stories in New York

The Return of the Most Important Fish in the Sea

In early February of 2019, New York Assembly Member Steve Englebright and State Senator Todd Kaminsky delivered an important legislative victory. Thanks to their leadership, a bill that will protect a tiny little fish called the Atlantic menhaden passed the New York State Assembly and Senate.

Called the most important fish in the sea, this small fish is a key food source for wildlife including dolphins and whales. The Nature Conservancy was a lead advocate for this legislation, and the bill was widely supported by diverse groups including sport fisherman, whale advocates, charter boat captains, baymen and marine scientists. Now, the bill awaits Governor Cuomo’s signature.

Why are menhaden called the most important fish in the sea?

Often referred to as “bunker,” the Atlantic menhaden are a forage fish, and they play a critical role in the marine ecosystem. Marine life—dolphins, whales and many kinds of fish—need menhaden to keep their bellies full. The main reason whales have returned to New York Harbor is because menhaden are back, after being scarce for decades. Thanks to the return of menhaden, our local whale and dolphin populations are rebounding. That’s one of the reasons why you may have heard of whales recently making appearances in the Hudson. Local businesses, from whale watching to sport fishing, are also experiencing a resurgence thanks to menhaden. Until recently, the menhaden population in New York waters had been too low to attract the attention of large fishing boats, but that is no longer true. This is why the new legislation is so important. Once signed by Governor Cuomo, this law will help protect our wildlife, as well as many New York businesses that rely on bunker to prosper. 

Why are menhaden harvested?

Since it’s an incredibly oily fish, you’re unlikely to see menhaden on restaurant menus anytime soon. But people have been harvesting it since the American Revolution. Back then, it was used on farms as fertilizer. Today, the Atlantic menhaden fishery is the largest fishery on the United States’ east coast. About 20 percent is used as bait to catch lobsters, crabs, and other seafood, but the lion’s share of the nearly half a billion-pound coast-wide catch is processed into fish oil supplements and food for livestock and pets.

What led to the resurgence of the Atlantic menhaden?

One key factor was better regulation. Following years of unregulated fishing, a community of fishermen, scientists and conservation advocates worked diligently to limit menhaden harvest with the goal of rebuilding their numbers. Eventually, their efforts paid off, and menhaden started to return to New York waters. Fishermen and women expected this would be a boon to other fisheries–like striped bass and bluefish–and they were right.

It’s also providing New Yorkers with a glimpse of what Long Island’s coast might have been like back in the day. Think: coastal sharks crushing schools of menhaden in the surf, the deafening clatter of seabirds picking fish from above while predatory fish pursue menhaden from below, porpoises and dolphins frolicking where they haven’t been seen in decades. For many, the most spectacular sight is humpback whales lunging to feed on schools of menhaden right off Long Island beaches and New York City’s coast.

What’s next?

We look forward to celebrating Governor Cuomo signing this bill into law.

Over the next few years, we will be advocating for additional coast-wide menhaden management in New York and beyond. 

Foraging the High Seas Called the most important fish in the sea, this small fish is a key food source for wildlife like dolphins and whales. Over the next few years, we'll be advocating for additional coast-wide menhaden management in New York and beyond.