Sargent's view: The whale and fish of Seabrook Beach

Sandy Tilton photoA humpback whale feeding off Seabrook Beach.

Aug. 13 broke warm and sultry. The rising sun was hidden behind thick, offshore fog banks. All that could be seen was a vast expanse of light gray sky above equally gray waters.

Two screaming osprey soared overhead until one them folded her wings and plunged into the water to surface with a wriggling, fat menhaden firmly grasped in her talons. 

Hopefully, she would not be mugged by a wayward bald eagle that Benjamin Franklin famously declared were birds of low moral values compared to turkeys that had the sagacity to outrun predators and should thus be our national symbol.

But osprey have their own sagacity. Soon, the two osprey will fly south to overwinter, one in Florida, the other two states away. In the spring, they will return to nest in Seabrook again because they mate for life. They have learned that the way to maintain a good marriage is to take separate winter vacations, I suppose.

Suddenly, the surface waters start to dimple from the fins of menhaden and the huge black head of a humpback whale surfaces in front of the grayness and rises majestically higher as hundreds of footlong fish jump clear of its gaping maw. 

Human fishermen are casting for striped bass lurking below the thick schools of menhaden that darkened the water with their abundance. The head of a large gray seal looks curiously from close to shore where it feels safer from the predations of a great white shark that has been patrolling the waters from Cape Ann to New Hampshire all summer long.

In Annisquam, researchers from the National Marine Fisheries Service had been leaning over the edge of an inflatable Zodiac trying to free a minke whale when the harbormaster in a nearby boat frantically radioed: 

“Let go of the line and back away as quickly as possible!”

Two seconds later, a great white slammed into the flank of the whale, which broke it free of the entangling lobster gear. But it swam away, streaming a trail of blood gushing from a 2-foot-wide bite in its once-sleek torso.

Now, a menhaden boat sets a huge seine around a school only yards from the whale and a lone kayaker holding two triangular sails aloft to keep up with the whale looks on with curiosity and what seems to be, dare I say it, affection.

This feeding frenzy is based on menhadens’ unique ability to convert billions of tons of plankton into millions of tons of menhaden to create thousands of pounds of whale blubber all in a few short days. It is surely one of the fastest, most energy-efficient food chains in the world.

But the frenzy is also the result of five major conservation successes. In the 1970s, there had only been 10 pairs of nesting osprey from Canada to New York. Now, there are close to a thousand pairs in Massachusetts alone.

The menhaden fishery also returned because of good regulations. It is the largest fishery in the world and traditionally produces poultry food, which was why your Purdue chicken used to taste so fishy. 

Now, most of the menhaden catch goes into producing omega-3 fish oil pills, and farmers have switched to feeding their chicken soybeans because of American tariffs. 

So who says President Trump hasn’t done anything for the country? Chicken now tastes fatty, just how he likes ‘em. 

Several years ago, the Atlantic States Fisheries Commission established quotas for how many menhaden could be caught by each state and for the past three years, there have been so many menhaden that whales have started swimming inshore to feast on them. 

Whales and seals were protected by the Marine Mammal and the Endangered Species acts. And of course, great white sharks have returned because of the abundance of seals.

So now people don’t have to spend thousands of dollars traveling to Africa to see an apex predator kill prey. They can watch from the safety of their own beach.

In an era when scientists are warning that over a million species could go extinct in the next few decades, it is reassuring that we have been able to return the Atlantic coast to a semblance of what it was like in pre-Colonial times when whales were common along these shores. 

But I suppose we will soon be trying to decide what to do about problem osprey that nest on baseball field lighting fixtures and great white sharks that take curious nips out of occasional swimmers that venture too far into the sharks’ natural feeding territories.

All these successes are the fruition of environmental acts passed in the 1970s by that great, soft-hearted hippy environmentalist, Richard M. Nixon. We should thank him for his foresight, I think.

Bill Sargent is a North Shore science writer and contributing columnist. His most recent book, “20,000 Years on the Merrimack River,” is available in local bookstores and through http://plumislandoutdoors.org and www.ingramcontent.com.

 

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