Editor’s Log: Menhaden Madness - The Fisherman

Editor’s Log: Menhaden Madness

Epic,” “best ever,” “one for the record books,” just some of the exciting references to last fall’s Jersey Shore striper run; except of course if you’re a surfcaster in Atlantic or Cape May county where the vernacular ranged from “okay” to “fair” or “you’re nuts” the farther south you’d travel.

It all began last October 8th when massive stripers hit the Ocean and Monmouth County beaches following a prolonged nor’east blow, after which winds turned offshore and adult bunker nosed up to the beach with 40- to 50-pound class stripers hot on their tails.  Things settled down soon after, but surf action heated up again in November, primarily in Monmouth County.  Peanuts and adult bunker were thick, and whenever winds blew W/NW you could find stripers of mixed sizes corralling them in the wash.

This incredible action continued throughout the month, with more than a few legendary Sandy Hook to Seaside blitzes up until the final, all-out assault on Sunday, December 4.  Except for boats still sitting in slips finding a pick of decent fish inside the three-mile-line down off Cape May and Lewes, DE into the first of the New Year, it was pretty much all over, literally overnight.

If you’d asked me 20 years ago for the best spot to boat a trophy striper in November, I would’ve pointed you towards Delaware Bay.  Back then, jumbo stripers were actively on the feed from “The Rips” off Cape May, up around the lumps, bumps and sloughs off Fortescue; gradually, over the course of two decades, those locations have mostly dried up.  But why?  I’m going out on an “anecdotal” limb here, but I think it’s because of bunker off the beach.

Menhaden in New Jersey waters have flourished ever since 2002 when acting Governor Donald DiFrancesco signed a new law prohibiting the taking of menhaden in state waters for the purpose of reduction (i.e. conversion to fish meal, oil and other components).  According to statistics, the so-called “reduction fleet” was responsible for harvesting 45.6 million pounds of menhaden in state waters in 2000 alone, so elimination of reduction fishing in state waters helped save 1 billion pounds of bunker from the Omega Fleet over two decades, a godsend to coastal resources leading to an explosion of happy predators, better coastal fishing, and a healthier ecosystem overall.

So I’m of the opinion that the old adage – never leave fish to find fish – seems to apply here. With all of those tasty menhaden off the beach in the fall, why would migratory stripers leave inshore waters to head up into Delaware Bay in search of food during their southbound journey?

It’s just an observation; one which apparently rings hollow in the state of Virginia, home of the Omega fleet.  Back in December, a proposal by Virginia Governor Glenn Youngkin’s administration to establish 1-mile buffers from Bay shorelines and a half-mile buffer on either side of the Bay Bridge Tunnel where purse seining would be prohibited was voted down by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC) by a 5-4 vote.  Instead, VMRC approved what the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) called “a watered-down resolution crafted by Omega Protein to create a Memo of Understanding” with the Virginia Commonwealth to explore the possibility of protecting shorelines and limiting user conflicts.

“Considering Omega Protein has a history of blatantly violating actual regulations, such as the Chesapeake Bay cap in 2019, it is extremely difficult to believe how a memorandum of understanding is going to accomplish anything,” said ASA’s Mike Leonard.

Perhaps it’s a stretch to think that Virginia bunker protections would lead to more menhaden in the Delaware Bay, but it’s safe to say that a healthier, menhaden-filled Chesapeake ecosystem would do wonders for striped bass in their natal estuary, leading to better fishing coastwide. Heck, perhaps we need a few more “buffers” in the Delaware Bay.

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