On an otherwise typical day in August 2015, John Waldman looked around the waters near his home off Hempstead Harbor, on Long Island’s north shore. Usually when he gazed out, he saw the blue shimmer of Long Island Sound. On that day, however, he saw the unmistakable silver glint of menhaden, a fish known locally as bunker.
“There was solid bunker from the inside of my harbor out to the middle of the sound,” Waldman says. “There were acres and acres and acres of them. Fishermen said they’d never seen anything like it.”
Two months later a humpback whale believed to be feeding on menhaden not only swam into Hempstead Harbor, but also kept coming until the water was about 15 feet deep, Waldman says. Around the same time, New York Newsday ran a photo of a humpback breaching near there, snapped by a stunned fisherman aboard a 22-foot Grady-White from about 20 feet away.
That autumn, Waldman went to the other side of Long Island to surf-cast off Jones Beach on the south shore. “There was a solid ribbon of menhaden from the shore to about 300 feet out,” he says, noting that many were juvenile, or “peanut bunker,” nicknamed for their size. “The water was black from their bodies for as far as I could see, several miles, the peanut bunker.”
Fishermen near there also saw whales emerge with the schools of menhaden off Rockaway, New York. “The whales were among these schools and coming right up against these anglers and scaring the hell out of them, coming right up to the boats with their mouths wide open,” Waldman says.
No matter whether New Yorkers call the fish menhaden or bunker, the whales think of them as one thing: dinner. That’s why Waldman, an aquatic conservation biologist and professor of biology at Queens College, along with a number of other experts, believe the growing presence of menhaden is playing a role in the increased number of whale sightings off New York City, where humpbacks are being spotted in quantities that defy generations’ worth of memory.
Generally speaking, the presence of whales in the region is nothing new. Humpback, minke, sei, fin, right and sperm whales can be spotted around New York City, says Rob DiGiovanni, chief scientist for the Atlantic Marine Conservation Society, adding that “there have been reports, acoustically, of blue whales farther offshore.”
What is new is the increasing number of reported inshore whale sightings. DiGiovanni, Waldman and others are trying to determine what’s going on, whether those sightings mean an actual increase in the Western Atlantic whale population or a change in migratory patterns — and what, precisely, led to the explosion in menhaden as an inshore source of whale food near Manhattan.
As scientists study and debate, New York-area boaters are enjoying a show. Mammoth whales and massive schools of menhaden seem to be everywhere. Paul L. Sieswerda of Gotham Whales told Popular Science in June that his group’s surveys show an “exponential increase in the number of whales since 2011.” In 2015, the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition said the fish species was “performing at or near record bests.”
The whales have appeared in waters where even the oldest New Yorkers don’t recall ever seeing them. This past November, a humpback was spotted in the Hudson River, on Manhattan’s West Side. CBS News reported dozens of calls to the Coast Guard about the sighting, and an unbelievable-sounding notice to mariners was issued — for a whale swimming south from the George Washington Bridge.
“To have a whale off Manhattan, a mile from Times Square, is just beyond belief to me,” Waldman says. “The Hudson was written off as an open sewer. We’re not used to having whales in inshore waters. To have it so close to the iconic symbol of urbanization, Times Square, and to have it feeding on outgoing menhaden from the north Hudson, it’s just incredible.”
A number of theories have been posited, separately and in tandem, to explain the trends. Some people point to 1972’s Marine Mammal Protection Act, which made it illegal to hunt, harass or kill marine mammals without a permit. “Forty-five years ago, we started protecting these animals,” DiGiovanni says. “A very simple way to look at it is that if we start to protect these animals, maybe we’ll have more of them after a few decades. That’s factor A.”
Other people look to the Clean Water Act, suggesting that with the waters around Gotham getting cleaner, various plankton are thriving, which gives the menhaden a food source, which in turn lures whales and other marine life to feed closer to shore. Still other experts cite recent efforts to protect menhaden from overfishing by commercial interests, which turn the fish into, among other things, dietary supplements for people and meal for agricultural animals, such as chickens.
Scientists say they need more research to figure out how many whales are in the Western Atlantic, data that could help determine whether more existing whales are frequenting New York City or whether more whales are being born. DiGiovanni is among the scientists who fly in low-altitude planes, trying to quantify the population and its migratory patterns, working with such agencies as the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. “Are we seeing more of them here and less of them off of Georges Bank?” he asks. “That’s what we’re working on, on a much bigger level, with NOAA and the federal government.”
It’s possible that the whales used to be here and are now coming back. A lot of things could have driven — and can still drive — native whales away from a place like New York, DiGiovanni says. Factors include disease, a contaminated food supply, algae blooms, ship strikes, getting entangled in nets and other commercial fishing gear, ingesting marine debris and hearing disturbing noise. Whales may be returning or may have started breeding more, he says, because humans may have muted some offensive sound.
One limited study showed that after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, when a lot of shipping traffic ceased, the stress hormones in whales decreased, perhaps making them more likely to mate, or find a mate, because they could hear one another without the underwater din of engines.
No matter what’s happening with the total whale population, DiGiovanni says, he agrees that more spottings — live whales as well as stranded ones on beaches — are occurring near New York City. “In the 1990s, we’d have a whale stranding maybe once a year,” he says. “It wasn’t a common occurrence. Now we have multiple whale strandings a year. The society started doing response to these strandings. Since January of this year, we’ve had two live minke whales, two dead minke whales and one dead humpback.”
DiGiovanni also agrees with Waldman and others who say the menhaden population has exploded, tempting the whales inshore to feed. However, he adds, whales don’t move only to feed. They also move to mate and to migrate, which means additional factors are likely at play. “I look at the movement of whales as a highway,” DiGiovanni says. “When you look at a highway system, when you were going down the highway in the late ’70s, you didn’t really stop long at a rest area. There wasn’t much there. Now you look at the rest areas, and there are little complexes there. You still don’t go there for a fine meal, but you will spend more time there. The habitats are getting better. They’re not awesome — it’s not like going out for a fine meal in New York City — but you have a better environment, so you might slow down and spend more time there. And the more time that you have there, the more chance there is that someone is going to see you there.”
If menhaden are part of a whale’s version of a welcoming New York City rest stop (or at least a decent off-ramp hangout), then the question underlying the recent sightings goes back to what Waldman saw when he looked out over Hempstead Bay to Long Island Sound in 2015: Why did the menhaden population explode? “We can assume based on fishery science that environmental conditions were just right that year,” Waldman says. “When fish lay eggs, they don’t protect their young. The eggs are on their own.”
For some reason, he says, a lot of menhaden eggs survived in 2015. “There must have been perfect environmental conditions that year, but we can’t say why,” he says, adding, “I wouldn’t take any credit for the large menhaden production in 2015. It’s not necessarily anything that humans did.”
It’s also possible that the current level of whale activity around New York City may be unusual for humans to witness but not for whales to experience. DiGiovanni says that, historically, whales migrated regularly along the southern shore of Long Island — in such quantities that hunters once tracked them from canoes.
Today’s boaters, cruising and fishing everywhere from Hempstead Bay to the Hudson River, may simply be encountering a situation that used to be normal in nature, but that has been abnormal during the past century. “We don’t know that this is really unusual behavior, for whales to come in shallow waters,” Waldman says. “I liken it to sharks. We’re seeing more and more sharks again in shallow waters because the sharks are coming back after being wildly overfished for the last century.
“But if you look at historical records up to about the 1880s, they were really common,” he continues. “There was a person who caught seven sharks in one day off a pier in Manhattan. We just don’t think of them as an inshore species because we fished them so much and the inshore waters aren’t as friendly as they used to be because of changes in the habitat. It may be that in pristine waters, the whales come inshore to shallower waters more often. We’re just not used to seeing it.”