Protect the menhaden

These comments were sent to the Atlantic States Fisheries Managment Council as public comments on the Menhaden management plan they will  be voting on this fall.  I urge eveyone to weigh in and protect menhaden.  Greg Gerritt

I went for a walk this morning in one of my favorite places, on the very old path along the Seekonk River at the edge of Swan Point Cemetery in Providence. I have been walking there for 21 years, ever since I moved to Providence. It is called a river, but it is really the ocean the northernmost extension of Narragansett Bay, with a dredged channel for boats heading up to the Pier in Pawtucket, and a wide mudflat on the Providence side of the water. The EP side of the is dominated by the sewage treatment plant and the old landfill. The Providence side is one of the most majestic forests in New England, a mile along the river of steep bluff filled with 170 year old hardwoods. Even cooler is that when the old trees fall down,. They leave them there. I often sit on a log that fell into the water just before I moved here 21 years ago. It is seriously decaying, lost all its branches a decade ago, but the trunk leaning down from the stone wall protecting the path from the high tide except in big storms into the sea will still support me when i sit on it, on dry days. Like today.

The spring after I moved here I saw my first RI osprey from that tree, and I have even seen a small flatfish swim under me once. Later that year I saw my first menhaden and was amazed. For 9 months I had been looking into the water every day as I walked the river and saw little life in it, but come August I saw endless streams of 3 inch fish swimming by, almost rivers of fish. I eventually learned what they were. I also started seeing menhaden in August and September downtown in the Providence, Woonasquatucket and Moshassuck Rivers.

I started Friends of the Moshassuck shortly after that, as that little river surely needed friends after its 300+ year industrial history, and i walked by almost every day. Eventually Friends of the Moshassuck developed a video project on urban wildlife in the watershed. The focus is mostly on breeding toads and the restoration of breeding habitat a ways upstream, but come August and September, I walk along Canal Street and the South Water Street waterfront video camera in hand because menhaden continue to fascinate and are the one giant flash of life we see each year in the city. Here is one from early in the 2017 run https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xMS4WYM-XE8

But I want to return us to the Seekonk waterfront. This morning, 60 degrees, sunny, calm, the tide was in, lapping the stone wall. And walking along the path for the half mile I covered, almost everywhere were very young menhaden. From 1.5 inches to 3 inches, with of course the majority, the great majority, being the smallest size class. A few times I saw menhaden jumping offshore, larger ones from the size of the splashes, which means they are being hunted from below, while below the osprey’s favorite perch there were the quite stinky remnants of adult menhaden all over the place. Between the stinky adults, the jumpers off shore, and the rivers of tiny ones next to the wall, I could only think of what else happens in menhaden season along the Seekonk. The Osprey have a nest on a platform at the Bucklin Point sewage treatment plant. This year for the second straight, they seem to have 3 youngsters as I occasionally catch glimpses of 5 hunting at one time. All summer we have been seeing one or two, but come August, when the flow of menhaden is at its peak, its time to fledge the Osprey babies, and teach them to hunt. And menhaden is what they learn on, in numbers that even a beginning hunter can make a living on.

But is is not just the Osprey,. The Cormorants are seen all year round, but this time of year they are found in flotillas. Blue Heron numbers multiply, and one never sees Egrets except at this time. Kingfishers are darting everywhere. And even the gulls were fishing. Gulls are not really designed to hunt mobile prey like menhaden, they scavenge and pick up stranded crabs. But this time of year you see gulls sitting on the water trying to catch little fish in the water. I have never seen a gull catch a fish, but clearly it must be a worthwhile source of food as the behavior persists, and one can only think that it works because it is directed at a prey so numerous that even a clumsy gull can catch its fill from prey that floats just below the surface eating plankton.

It was the eating plankton that drew me to an analogy. I went to Yellowstone a few years ago, and there is one place in Yellowstone in which it is easy to see bison, the Madison River Valley. You look over the valley and there are bison everywhere. Bison need to drink pretty regularly, so they need to stay close enough to rivers that they can get to water most days. And then you realize that at one time, 200 years ago, there were herds of bison along almost every river in the grasslands of North America. And now there is one river valley that has a free ranging herd (of course they get shot if they go out of the park) and you remember what we have lost when you see what we still have.

Menhaden are the keystone species of the coastal estuaries in eastern North America. Osprey have returned since we stopped using DDT, but their continued recovery depends very much on menhaden. Eagles eat many as well, and the return of Bald Eagles to Rhode Island is an ongoing wonder. 3 kinds of herons, egrets, and kingfishers all rely upon menhaden to build up a little fat before the hard times of winter. Seals have returned to Rhode Island, Stripped bass and Bluefish make fishermen very happy, and all depend upon the huge schools of menhaden. One way you know this is true is because the schools of little ones always vastly outnumber the schools of big ones. So many die to keep the circle of life flowing.

Straying a bit from the bison analogy, we can not afford to have menhaden in just a few places, and even more than bison, menhaden need the whole sea to do their work, to be food for all things great and small. No park could contain a school. So what we have to do is protect the entire species, make sure that when people take some for our needs, that we leave enough for everything else. That we manage menhaden based on ecosystems needs, not human greed. So I strongly urge you to support menhaden management based on leaving enough in the sea for the circle of life to flow abundantly along our coasts, that we base our management on ecosystems not on a species by species basis, and remember how much of the ecosystem menhaden support and what that means to our communities.

 

Greg Gerritt
Watershed Steward Friends of the Moshassuck
Providence RI