Hundreds of Atlantic Menhaden, a species of fish in the herring family, have been washing up dead on the western shores of Bayonne. Menhaden, commonly known as bunker, travel in schools in the Hackensack River and Newark Bay.
According to Bayonne Public Information Officer Joe Ryan, the city is aware of the Menhaden die-off. The dead fish have been reported in Bayonne along the Newark Bay shoreline, including at Rutkowski Park, Stephen Gregg Park, 16th Street Park, and Boatworks.
The Bayonne Office of Emergency Management has looked into the problem and reported the dead Menhaden to the NJ Department of Environmental Protection (NJDEP), which is investigating the issue.
Ryan said the NJDEP has found that the die-off is naturally occurring and happens periodically in nature when there is a shortage of oxygen in the water.
Low oxygen levels can sometimes lead to the fish suffocating when hunted by predators, due to the increased need for oxygen while trying to escape.
Vital to the food chain
Jeff Tittel, Director of the New Jersey Sierra Club, said it is alarming that hundreds of Menhaden have been washing up dead on the shores of Bayonne.
“Menhaden are a key link in the food chain, functioning as a food source for larger species like bluefish and striped bass as well as marine mammals and birds like ospreys and bald eagles,” Tittel said.
These fish live in near-surface schools in estuaries and near-shore ocean waters from early spring through early winter.
Death by sewage?
“Whether they’re being chased by predators or not, the cause of the die-offs is low oxygen levels,” Tittel said.
Tittel continued: “One of the biggest problems we face is combined sewer overflows leaking raw and partially treated sewage into our bays, causing algae blooms and oxygen levels to drop. What makes it even worse is warmer water and more rain.”
According to Tittel, the warmer and rainier it becomes, the more combined sewer overflows and stormwater runoff become a problem because the bay floods with sewage when it rains.
Die-offs typically occur in warmer weather. While the water is usually cold this time of year, climate change has led to warmer water temperatures which in turn contribute to lower oxygen levels.
The city is seeing more development, which translates to more nutrient pollution from fertilizers, animals, and septic systems, Tittel said. And that pollution is having a detrimental effect on local ecosystems.
“The Hackensack River has gotten cleaner when it comes to industrial pollution, but there are still serious problems because of CSOs and stormwater runoff,” Tittel said.
Tittel said New Jersey needs to take real action when it comes to dealing with water pollution and climate change. He said the state needs to move forward with major initiatives like stormwater management, fixing combined sewer overflows, or establishing total maximum daily loads of pollution.
“They should also be using nonstructural systems like restoring wetlands, installing green roofs, and using rain gardens,” Tittel said. “The state needs to act now because die-offs of fish like Menhadens will not only impact important marine species but impact New Jersey’s commercial and recreational fisheries.”
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