Is this year’s bluefish run a sign of climate change?

May 29, 2015

It’s been about a month now since an unprecedented run of bluefish started bringing smiles to the faces of local anglers, and the bait and tackle shop owners selling them gear.

“I’ve been in business here for 23 years, and I’ve never seen a spring run of bluefish like this,” said Joe Morris at Lewes Harbour Marina. “I keep thinking tomorrow they will be gone, but they’re still here. A boat went off the point of Cape Henlopen yesterday and caught them.” That was Tuesday this week.

Morris said this year’s run of bluefish has been great for the tackle business. “They’ll eat everything, so we’ve been selling lots of steel leaders [to combat the sharp teeth and strong jaws of the blues], spoons, bucktails ... and other guys have been wading the flats out by the fishing pier, and they’re using flies and poppers.” Not only have the blues been numerous and steady, this year’s run is also notable because they have gone way up into Indian River and Bay as well as into the shallow waters inside Cape Henlopen and on up the Broadkill River. “They follow the menhaden, and then they start eating anything else that’s available.” Morris has been cleaning lots of bluefish and talks to others who do the same. They’re finding menhaden in the bellies of the blues as well as small trout, perch and shad.

And while everyone who likes to fish is happy with the run, many are asking the same question: Why this year like never before?

The most frequent fingers point toward an abundance of menhaden - known locally as bunker - moving up the beach and into the mouth of Delaware Bay.

Menhaden serve as a food source for many species, and Morris said it looks like the blues are following them. But beyond that simple explanation - which still doesn’t explain why this year - the conversation starts to include everything from whales, winds and currents to commercial fishing quotas for menhaden and even climate change.

A controversial vote

Bill Goldsborough, fisheries program director for the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, recently found himself on the short side of an Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission vote. The commission regulates fisheries along the Atlantic. Three years ago, citing statistics showing a declining fishery, commissioners voted to reduce the allowable catch of menhaden by 20 percent.

Understandably, the commercial menhaden industry, which for several decades served as the backbone of the Lewes economy, didn’t like the reduction. Based now primarily out of Reedville, Va., in the lower Chesapeake, Omega corporation operates several menhaden purse fishing vessels and extracts omega-3-rich oil from the catch for the vitamin industry.

This spring, after analyzing new statistics measuring the health of the coastal menhaden population, the commission determined that things aren’t as bad as previous assessments showed. In a split vote, members approved a 10 percent increase in the quota. Omega cheered, but Goldsborough isn’t so happy.

“It’s true that the overall biomass of the fishery is at about its average for the past 50 to 60 years. But the actual number of fish in the biomass is down. Their overall abundance is the lowest it’s been in 50 to 60 years,” said Goldsborough. “That means there are more larger, older fish and fewer younger fish. Menhaden spawn offshore, and their larvae are then blown into estuaries and rivers where the young fish grow. Chesapeake Bay is a huge nursery, but for the past 20 years there’s been very poor recruitment of juvenile fish in the Chesapeake. Something’s going on.

Now we’re seeing more of the biomass farther north, in New England and northern waters. The problem is that the younger fish - and the numbers of them - are more important for other predators like bluefish and stripers. If they’re not available for the bluefish and the stripers, that puts more pressure on bay anchovies and young trout.”

Goldsborough said when the fisheries commission voted recently to increase the quota for menhaden, it also agreed to begin developing ecological reference points for assessing the health of the menhaden population.

In a nutshell, that means determining whether there are enough fish left over in the overall population for the other species that feed on menhaden, after the commercial fishermen have taken their quota.

“They’re being methodical about this,” said Goldborough, “and that’s good. They’re trying to get it right. But the new reference points won’t come into play until 2017.”

Impacting whale watching?

Capt. Dale Parsons at Fisherman’s Wharf in Lewes agrees that the menhaden quota shouldn’t have been increased. “The last few years we’ve had good whale watching out in the mouth of Delaware Bay. There’s plenty of food out there for them. They’re staying around, and it’s good for our whale watching business. We’re not the only predators out there, you know.”

But what about the menhaden following the blues and some sort of climate change implication? “I don’t know,” said Goldsborough. “All I know is that menhaden larvae are planktonic, and where they go can be affected by winds and currents. To the extent that winds and currents are being affected by climate change, maybe part of the answer is there. Maybe the larvae are being swept a little farther up the coast, and the epicenter for the menhaden biomass is maybe shifting to the north.” Clearly, Goldsborough hasn’t connected all the dots, nor have Morris or Parsons. Nature, of course has. It’s up to us to keep trying to understand, continuing our ultimate quest for harmony, so we don’t end up singing the blues instead of catching them.