The Peconic River teeming with bunker fish last month. Photo: Brian Nigro

With unusually large numbers of bunker fish appearing in the Peconic River this spring, commercial fishermen will be allowed to net bunker in an effort to prevent the massive bunker kills seen last year, thanks to a ruling announced today by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

The interstate commission, which limits how many fish can be caught each year, has agreed to add New York to a special program that allows greater numbers of bunker to be harvested in places where bunker are occurring in higher abundance than normal.

The decision was made specifically to reduce the amount of bunker in the Peconic Estuary, where bunker have been reported in unusually large numbers since last month.

“I am very grateful that our plea for help did not fall upon deaf ears,” said Town Supervisor Sean Walter, who asked the commission to add New York to the program. “This will allow the town to be proactive rather than reactive this year.”

The program, called the “episodic event set aside program,” reserves one percent of the coast’s total allowable catch for bunker in eligible states. New York was added to the list of eligible states today, the commission wrote, so that fishermen can “harvest a portion of the large build-up of [bunker] in the Peconic Bay estuary to mitigate the impacts of additional fish kills.”

Riverhead Town is currently working with the New York Department of Environmental Conservation to create staging areas for commercial fishermen to cast their nets, Walter said.

“Luckily the colder weather has kept water temperatures down and is affording us a little bit of time,” he said.

Quickly rising water temperatures contributed to one of the largest fish kills in decades last summer. Warm water holds less dissolved oxygen, and combined with an algal bloom that consumed most of the water’s dissolved oxygen for several nights in a row, unprecedented numbers of bunker fish were killed at the end of May. In the weeks that followed, hundreds of thousands of dead bunker washed ashore, filling the beaches of the Peconic Bay and creating a terrible stench for miles near the water.

Walter hired commercial fishermen last year to help with the clean-up, paying them by the pound to haul dead fish out of the water. This year, with early reports of bunker already gathering in the river, he says he wants to prevent another kill before it begins.

Commercial fishermen will be allowed to use seine nets to capture bunker in the Peconic River. Up to one million pounds of bunker are allowed to be harvested under the episodic event set aside program.

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