Sunday, November 20, 2016
A week or two ago, a friend of mine had a striped bass stolen by a seal.
Even down here on Long Island, that’s not too unusual, for harbor seals have become pretty numerous during the winter, and seem to be sticking around a little later each spring, while showing up a bit sooner each fall.
A lot of fishermen, particularly surfcasters, aren’t very happy to see the seals arrive, and get upset when one of them steals a bass. That’s particularly true up on Cape Cod, where the numbers of gray seals—animals far larger than the harbor seals that we see on Long Island—have become extremely abundant, and make it difficult to land a hooked fish.
My friend runs a charter boat, and so it’s important that his customers can bring fish to the boat. Even so, when the seal stole his striper, he wasn’t upset, and noted that “I thought it was kinda cool…”
And when you stop to think about things a bit, it was.
For many years, seals were scarce in Long Island waters. When I was a boy, growing up on western Long Island Sound (admittedly, on the Connecticut side, not on Long Island proper, although the waters were effectively the same), seals were seldom seen. Every couple of years, an angler trying to catch winter flounder early in the spring would spot one, and when that happened, the story was front-page news in the local paper.
Today, seals are regular seasonal visitors to Long Island’s waters, and appear in the sound on a regular basis. And they are only one of a number of animals that have become more common in recent years.
Bottlenose dolphin, absent from western Long Island Sound for at least half a century, have returned to those waters.
And for the past couple of seasons, humpback whales have also appeared, something that had never happened before at any point during my lifetime.
On the South Shore of Long Island, humpback whales, along with some fin whales and minkes, have been present right off the beaches for most of the summer. As I write this, one humpback has entered the shallows of Moriches Bay, where it remains at a substantial risk for stranding in the bay’s skinny water.
Farther west, another humpback has passed through New York harbor, and was seen feeding in the area around the George Washington Bridge.
And it’s not just marine mammals.
Osprey, which were seldom seem four or five decades ago, have become common. The fish-eating birds seem to be nesting everywhere, from their traditional locations in waterside trees to dedicated nest platforms, utility poles, channel markers and even the signs on abandoned fuel docks. And more and more often, anglers and other coastal habitués have seen bald eagles return to the shoreline, to feed on an abundance of baitfish that can now be found in Long Island’s bays and other protected waters.
Sharks have also become ever more abundant in Long Island’s coastal sea. In recent years, fishermen have caught thresher sharks, some in the 500 pound range, within sight of Long Island’s beaches. This fall, I’ve heard stories of thresher sharks slashing though schools of bait and churning up the surface inside Great South Bay.
In addition, scientists have confirmed that eastern Long Island waters are a nursery area for white sharks, perhaps the first such nursery ever discovered.
That sort of abundance doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Long Island’s waters are seeing an increase in marine predators because they host so many of the forage fish that such predators need to survive.
Such forage can take many forms, ranging from vast shoals of sand eels that attract fish, whales and various sea birds well out in the ocean to schools of menhaden that provide food for striped bass, bluefish, birds and marine mammals within sight of Long Island’s shores, including in Long Island Sound.
To construct a building that lasts, builders must first build a solid foundation. An enduring ocean food web also rests on a solid foundation, one made up of all of the various forage fish needed to support larger predators.
The good news is that fishery managers are taking steps to assure that a good forage base exists.
Earlier this year, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council adopted an omnibus amendment that would prevent the creation of new fisheries for forage species, or allow the expansion of existing fisheries, until such time as managers could determine with reasonable certainty that such new fisheries would not harm predator species that depend on such forage.
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission has already taken action to reduce the harvest of Atlantic menhaden, and the resulting increase in menhaden abundance has brought an influx of predators to Long Island’s coast. Now, ASMFC is going a step farther, and considering the abundance of ecological reference points which would manage menhaden based on its role as a forage fish, rather than merely tying harvest to the concept of maximum sustainable yield. Such ecological reference points, if adopted, would be setting a very important precedent, and make it likely that the number of big predators in local waters will not decrease.
The seals that steal fish from anglers lines, the juvenile white sharks that feed within sight of exclusive Hamptons beaches and the humpback whales that rise up out of the sea, water and menhaden streaming from their not-quite-closed jaws, are all coming back to Long Island because, for the first time in a great many years, there are enough forage fish in local waters to support them.
Our waters are being made whole again.
As someone wrote in response to my friend’s report that he lost a bass to a seal, “The neighborhood is totally changing.”
There’s no doubt that is true.
And that is a very good thing.