Why the Whales Are Coming to the City

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Why the Whales Are Coming to the City
A humpback whale feeding on menhaden fish off the coast of New York. Photo credit: Philip Ng, Gotham Whale.
A humpback feeds on menhaden off the coast of NYC. (Philip Ng/courtesy of Gotham Whale)

Manhattan had a special guest on November 17th when a humpback whale, suitably dubbed Gotham, made its way up the Hudson River as far north as the George Washington Bridge.

Whale sightings have become more common in New York in recent years, a welcome and exciting addition to New York’s activities for most. However, the underlying reason for this phenomenon, the increase of Atlantic Menhaden fish, is stirring up debate in the fishery and environmentalist community.

Between May and November, humpback whales can generally be spotted feeding off the coast of Massachusetts, Maine, and Nova Scotia before they travel back down to the Dominican Republic, where they’ll mate and breed for the winter months. Humpback whales are the most acrobatic of their kind and therefore the most photogenic and famous. Their fluke’s are unique, allowing them to be individually named and recognized across the world. They can grow to be up to 60 ft. long. The humpbacks spotted around New York have been between 30 and 40 ft.

“The first reports of whale sightings in the New York area came in around 2010,” said Paul Sieswerda of Gotham Whale, a whale research and advocacy group in New York. The sightings kept increasing and in 2011, Gotham Whale started offering whale and dolphin watching tours. “Every year since 2011, the number of whales we spotted doubled,” said Sieswerda, “and in 2014, we saw more whales than in the three years before that combined.”  

“I don’t like to speculate about what goes on underwater, but it looks like there is a new feeding ground off the coast of New York,” said Sieswerda. “Instead of going further north to the established feeding ground of Stellwagen Bank off the coast of Boston, where they’ll likely have to compete for food, younger whales are hanging back in New York to feed. We spot them with fish falling out of their mouths, that’s how we know they’re feeding.”

Humpback whales will swim through a school of fish with their mouths wide open, swallowing everything they find. The local delicacy of the northern Atlantic states is a fish called menhaden, or bunker, whose catch is cause for debate.

 About twenty per cent of the yearly menhaden catch is used in the bait industry for things like crab fishing. The other eighty per cent goes to a company called Omega Protein Corporation, which uses menhaden for fish oil supplements. Omega Protein is the leading producer of omega-3 fish oil in the United States. The company is headquartered in Houston, and has about 1,100 employees worldwide.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an interstate organization ratified by the member states and approved by U.S. Congress in 1941, manages and regulates commercial fisheries. In 2012, they cut the total allowable catch for menhaden by commercial fisheries by 20 per cent, allowing the Menhaden stock to grow.

“Historically, the range of menhaden fish was from Maine down to Florida, but by 2012 they were only found in smaller numbers between Massachusetts and South Carolina,” said Paul Eidman, a fishing boat captain based in Tinton Falls, New Jersey and the founder of advocacy group called the Menhaden Defenders. “Since the quota was set, the menhaden stock is showing signs of rebuilding itself, and there is a direct correlation between the increase in menhaden and the increase in whales.”

However the commercial fishery industry argues that it is not overfishing the menhaden stock, and has lobbied to decrease the quota ever since it was set. By 2015 the industry had won back 16.5 per cent of the initial 20.

Photo credit: Bernard Visser, Gotham Whale
Bernard Visser/courtesy of Gotham Whale

The ecological role of the bunker is up for discussion this winter. In January 2017 the Fisheries Commission’s Menhaden Management Board will begin work on including ecological reference points to insure that all creatures that feed upon this fish are included in future regulations. Also up for proposal is a reallocation of the current quota to increase the amount allocated to the bait sector. The public has until January 4th to submit comment on the proposal to the Atlantic States Menhaden Fisheries Commission.

“Menhaden Defenders is advocating for a progressive ecosystem-based management,” said Eidman. “Meaning that we want a base level of fish in the ocean that is sustainable for the ecosystem.”

The way the Atlantic State Marine Fisheries Commission has historically set the allowable catch limits is based on the industries’ need rather than what the ecosystem could sustain. “This has resulted in overfishing of the menhaden stock, which in turn leads to less Striped Bass and less whales,” said Eidman, who sits on the advisory panel for the Commission’s Menhaden Board. “We’re hoping we can set limits based on what the ecosystem needs to survive, rather than what businesses need to survive.”

Just last week, Sieswerda says Gotham Whale spotted a North Atlantic Right Whale, an endangered species, off the coast of Long Island. “The quota has definitely worked,” he said. “We’re not only seeing more whales, they’re staying longer too. We usually end the season at the beginning of November. This year, we had our last trip in the second week of December.”

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