Lawmakers Pass Legislation to Curb Whale Food Fishing


The local whales will have plenty to celebrate this year. They’ll likely have more to eat. This week, state lawmakers passed legislation that would prevent fishermen from using a technique to mass fish menhaden, or bunker, a popular bait fish and source of fish oil, and also a favorite meal of local ocean wildlife like humpback whales that have frequented our waters in recent years.

The Menhaden population has increased in New York waters in recent years, which is evident by the number of whales that now frequent the area to feast on them. However, the increase has also drawn the attention of fishing companies. As Omega Protein, the largest menhaden fishing corporation in the country, lowered their purse seine nets into the waters off of New York and New Jersey last summer, pulling in as much as two million pounds of menhaden in a single day, concern grew. Menhaden, also known as bunker, is often used as a bait fish to attract larger prey, and with a high oil content, it is ground into products like fish-oil capsules. However, the fish is also a favorite food of larger sea wildlife such as whales, sharks, dolphin, tuna, blue fish and other large fish species, and has been credited for bringing more of such wildlife to the area, much to the joy of local whale watching boats and beachgoers. Although the practice of harvesting menhaden is legal, fear started to grow that engaging in the practice so close to shore, would impact local wildlife.

Last year, Omega Protein began the process of seeking a Sustainability Certificate from the Marine Stewardship Council, which would verify that the company’s mass harvesting of menhaden of the Atlantic menhaden fishery was a sustainable practice. As environmentalists monitored Omega’s fishing practices of using a purse seine net to obtain massive quantities of menhaden, pushback began. Groups like Gotham Whale, which studies the local New York whale population, and a new group, Menhaden Defenders, banded together with others to protest the practice due to the potential impact it could have on the local population of whales and other wildlife and the ecosystem of local waters.

That pushback has seemingly led to progress. Other bills putting limits on menhaden fishing have failed to pass in the past, but this week, both the NY Senate and Assembly unanimously agreed that the time has come to curb menhaden fishing in local waters. They both passed a bill that prevents menhaden being taken from New York’s marine district with a purse seine, unless the Department of Environmental Conservation determines there is an imminent risk of a fish kill.

The bill still needs to be approved by Governor Andrew Cuomo, but with unanimous approval by the Senate and Assembly, he is expected to sign it into law.

This means whales should have plenty to eat right off our shores.