Fishermen remove 200,000 pounds of bunker to prevent fish kill

05/19/2016 9:00 AM |

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Riverhead Town and the state Department of Environmental Conservation are each contributing two cents per pound to subsidize fishermen hired to haul bunker fish out of the Peconic Bay area.

The idea is to reduce the bunker population in area waters to stave off a large-scale fish kill similar to those that occurred in 2015 and 2009, which some scientists attribute to a high number of bunker combined with low dissolved oxygen levels in the Peconic.

The Town Board was expected to formalized the agreement by resolution at its meeting Wednesday night.

Significant bunker die-offs occurred in late May and mid-June of 2015. After the county health department issued a warning not to swim in water containing dead fish, the town rescheduled its popular Peconic River cardboard boat race from June 28 to Aug. 23.

The bunker, also called menhaden, are already in the bay in great numbers this year. Fishermen hired by the DEC, who have already begun hauling out the fish, removed 150,000 to 200,000 pounds of bunker between May 9 and 12, according to Riverhead Supervisor Sean Walter.

The four cents per pound is intended to subsidize the fisherman, because the amount they’d ordinarily make on bunker fish would not be worth their while, Mr. Walter said.

Because the market is glutted with them this time of year, fisherman normally receive only about 8 cents per pound for bunker. The additional four cents from the government brings their total to 12 cents per pound.

The supervisor said he tried to get Southampton Town to participate as well, but they declined.

“Everybody can talk about how the health of the estuary is bad, and I’m not going to take anything away from that,” Mr. Walter said in a May 3 interview. “But I’ll bet you if you took the healthiest, purest water that any estuary ever would have, that it could not support the number of fish you have [in the Peconic]. There’s just too many fish.”

Willie Caldwell, who owns C-Well Fish LLC in Aquebogue, is among the fishermen hired to remove the fish from the Peconic.

He works with three, sometimes four boats and said they’ve been hauling out 20,000 to 25,000 pounds of bunker per day.

“It just keeps getting bigger every day,” Mr. Caldwell said. “Every boat is filled to the brim with them … potentially, if we can keep up with the situation, we can prevent a fish kill.”

The fish are sold as chum or bait, Mr, Caldwell said. They are brought to his business in Aquebogue, packed into tractor trailers and shipped off to markets in Maine, Virginia and locally.

In other areas, the big market for bunker is for fish oil sales, such as Omega-3 oils, he said.

Mr. Caldwell said Monday that the bunker appear to be healthy, but there haven’t been any predators chasing them yet.

However, that could change.

“We started to see the bluefish show up today,” he said Monday.

In the past, the bluefish have chased the bunker into shallower water with less oxygen, which is where the bunker die.

The bunker “are all the way out to the [Route 105] bridge in comfortable levels. As soon as you put predators up by the bridge, the bunker get panicked and they don’t know which way out because there’s so many of them,” Mr. Caldwell said.

Bunker are filter feeders that eat plankton and have no teeth. They have to swim and move to stay alive, Mr. Caldwell said.

The town and state were able to convince the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to allow the New York fishery for bunker, which is basically the Peconic River area, to remove up to one million pounds of bunker on an emergency basis to help prevent a fish kill, according to Tina Berger, a commission spokesperson. The one million limit represents only 1 percent of the coastwide allowable catch in the New England states.

That measure was approved May 5.

Prior to this year, New York was not included among the states allowed to remove bunker on the emergency basis, which is called an Episodic Event Set Aside Program.

Under normal conditions, commercial fishermen are allowed to remove 6,000 pounds of bunker per day per vessel, according to the ASMFC.

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Photo caption: Willie Cauldwell brings in a net of bunker Friday morning in the Peconic River near Cromwell Street. (Credit: Barbaraellen Koch)

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