Saturday, December 12, 2020

December 12 - Menhaden die off has a long history

Since this past summer people have been noting large numbers of dead and dying fish along the Hudson River and locally here in Inwood Hill Park. The Ring-billed, Herring, and Great Black-backed gulls have all been feasting on the fish and in some cases fighting each other for the carcasses of the fish. The fish are Menhaden also known as Mossbunker, or just Bunker (Brevoortia tyrannus). Many local newspapers in New York City and up the Hudson River have carried stories about the dead fish. Many of the stories have attributed the die-off to various environmental factors, the most commonly cited being low oxygen content in the water, with high population numbers as a contributing factor. Indeed, these factors are probably the proximate causes of the die off. Some news accounts have been quick to bring environmental degradation such as poor water quality or climate change into the mix as culprits. While we should always be concerned about such factors it is also important to be careful not to jump to easy answers. In fact large die offs of Menhaden have a very long history on the Atlantic coast and in the New York City area. In a  quick Google search I turned up a scientific paper from 1999 that reported on a large die off of Menhaden off the coast of North Carolina in 1997 ("A Large Fish Kill of Atlantic Menhaden, Brevoortia tyrannus, on the North Carolina Coast" by Joseph W. Smith in the Journal of the Elisha Mitchell Scientific Society 115(3):157-163.) 

However, Menhaden die offs have a far older history than merely the incident noted above from North Carolina. In his classic 1959 book A Natural History of New York City John Kieran cites an account of a trip in 1679 and 1680 by two preachers named Jasper Danckaerts and Peter Sluyter which they published called Journal of a Voyage to New York, and a Tour of Several of the American Colonies. In their published account Danckaerts and Jasper report on finding on the shores of Staten Island the remains of thousands of fish known as "marsbancken", what we now call Menhaden. Elsewhere in his book, Kieran quotes from a story in the New York Times, dated July 30, 1954 which reports on the removal of forty tons of dead Menhaden from five miles of Rockaway Beach.

Thus, these die offs of Menhaden have happened periodically not just in recent decades, but indeed have been documented for centuries!

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