Fisheries & Aquatic Life / Long Island Sound

Whales and porpoises and dolphins, oh my!

Thousands of us were transfixed and inspired by recent sightings of big marine mammals in Long Island Sound. Our Curt Johnson mediates on what their presence means.

In the last couple of weeks, the first porpoise of the season (off Oyster Bay and nearby harbors) and a humpback whale breaching off of Charles Island in Milford were both spotted in Long Island Sound!

Porpoise were a seasonal sight in the central Sound when I was young, creating tremendous excitement along the coast. After decades of absence, porpoise and dolphins have started to return to the Sound sporadically over the past few years.

Photo of humpback whale in Long Island Sound, from a video by Mark Tutino. Image from New Haven Register.

Photo of humpback whale in Long Island Sound, from a video by Mark Tutino. Image from New Haven Register.

But a humpback whale off of Milford! Wow. That is truly amazing!

Why do these magnificent creatures come into the Sound? They’re chasing big schools of fish. Silver and yellow fin tipped menhaden (often called “bunker”) form schools by the thousands. They are a favorite target for dolphin, porpoise, and humpbacks. And fortunately, schools of bunker are on the rise, in part due to our work.

Three years ago, Save the Sound helped organize a dozen Long Island Sound groups, joining our collective voices with more than 100 groups up and down the coast calling for a historic cap on menhaden harvest. The mid-Atlantic and north Atlantic fisheries councils listened, and passed a cap on menhaden catch. While this rule still needs to be strengthened, the Pew Trust (who headed up the effort) estimates that due to this cap there are 300 million more of these creatures in the Atlantic today than there were just three years ago. Last summer, big schools of menhaden attracted whale feeding parties off of New Jersey’s coast in numbers rarely seen.

Video of dolphins in Long Island Sound taken by Jack Dowd.

The beginning of a return of menhaden is a solid start for the wide array of finned, feathered, and blubbery creatures who feed on all life stages of menhaden. Right now, terns and herons are bulking up for their fall migration. They are congregating along our coast and gorging on schools of the inch-long baby menhaden or “pea bunker,” who hatched earlier this summer. And porpoise, dolphin, and humpbacks are awe-inspiring signs of hope for a return of abundance of life to the Sound.

Posted by Curt Johnson, executive director of CFE’s Save the Sound program. 

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