By Terri Estes

The menhaden is often referred to as the most important fish in the sea. A more common name for menhaden is bunker, or moss bunker. This relatively small, oily, silvery fish swim in large schools all along the Atlantic coast, from Nova Scotia to northern Florida. They are filter feeders, consuming plankton and converting it into energy-rich flesh. They consume phytoplankton and zooplankton which helps in controlling plankton populations, which helps increase water clarity and quality.  Menhaden also serve as a primary food source for larger predatory fish, marine mammals, and seabirds.

While menhaden may not be commercially valuable for direct human consumption, they are crucial for the commercial fishing industry. Their abundance directly impacts the health and abundance of predator populations such as striped bass, bluefish and tuna. They are also harvested for their oil and fishmeal, which are used in various products, including animal feed and omega-3 supplements.

The presence of these large schools of menhaden, or bunker (as we like to call them) off Rockaway and the rest of Long Island is the reason we are seeing so many whales, dolphins and seals. They are feasting on menhaden.  Humpback whales and mink whales are known to consume large quantities of menhaden and dolphins are known to use active hunting methods to herd and corral these small fish in order to consume large quantities quickly. Dolphins can consume up to 20 pounds of bunker a day.

Menhaden can spawn year-round in inshore waters off the Atlantic coast, with the highest spawning rate near North Carolina in late fall. The eggs hatch in the open ocean and the larva drift to sheltered estuaries via ocean currents. Young bunker spend a year developing before returning to the open ocean. In this first year, they are commonly known as “peanut bunker”. They do not reach sexual maturity until the end of their second year of life. A young, sexually mature female can produce roughly 38,000 eggs, while a fully mature female can produce over 362,000 eggs. The Chesapeake Bay is a popular nursery for juvenile menhaden. These young fish will remain there until they are mature enough to head into the open waters.  Menhaden can live up to 10 to 12 years and can grow to 15 inches.

The next time you are lucky enough to see whales or dolphins frolicking off our coast, silently thank the little power house bunker whose presence helps maintain a balanced food web while also maintaining the health and balance of our coastal and open ocean environments.

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