Robert Miller: Long Island Sound is a 'restaurant' for birds and others because of one type of fish – CT Insider

Menhaden schooling by the hundreds of thousands off Menunkatuck Island.
Cormorants and gannets and ospreys now dive with abandon into Long Island Sound. Harbor seals sun themselves on the Sound’s beaches and rocky outcroppings. Dolphins — even, occasionally whales — hang a left from the Atlantic Ocean and swim in for a visit.
And what do we have to thank for this growing abundance in the state’s most important and most complex natural resource?
Menhaden, aka bunker — the most important little fish that feeds everyone else.
And also, plankton, which, in turn, feeds the menhaden.
Those are two of the points made last week during the Connecticut Ornithological Association’s second annual science conference.
A video recording of the all-day conference, entitled “Long Island Sound; Restaurant for Birds’’ is on the associations website at
The conference gave an overview of the different habitat of the Sound, the huge variety of species that live there and the ways that climate change is altering it.
“Long Island Sound is changing and its bird are changing,’’ said Tom Robben, the association’s president and one of the conference’s moderators. “Some species and increasing, some are declining and we don’t always know why.’’
The Sound is a big estuary, running 110 miles west to east, with salt water from the Atlantic mixing continually with fresh water from Connecticut’s rivers — primarily the Connecticut, the Housatonic and the Thames.
Miraculously, it is thriving in one of the most densely-populated parts of the United States. About 4 million people live along its coastline and about 8 million in its watershed which stretches north to the Quebec border.
Researchers now know the Sound’s waters are getting warmer. Sea levels are rising as well.
That’s changing the Sound’s fish life, said John Waldman, professor of earth and environmental sciences at Queen’s College and one of the conference’s speakers.
Waldman said lobsters and winter flounder — once common in the Sound — are now hard to come by. Others, like blackfish, summer flounder and porgy, are filling up its waters.
“Porgy used to be rare,’’ Waldman said. “Now, you can’t drip a baited hook in the Sound and not catch one.’’
Mary Beth Decker, a research scientist at Yale University’s Department of Ecology and Environmental Biology, explained at the conference that the Sound is a place of many habitats — salt marshes, mud flats, rocky cobbles, open water and estuarine bays — each with its own plants and food supply, each favored by different species of birds.
In turn, George McManus, professor of marine sciences at the University of Connecticut, talked about the Sound’s rich stew of microscopic plankton and zooplankton, with their populations blooming in the spring to replenish the Sound with food.
“Plankton is the foundation of the world,’’ said Robben of the ornithological association. “Without it, you don’t have anything.’’
Menhaden, rich in oil, growing to about 8 to 10 inches long, are the keystone species, the bridge from zooplankton to osprey and striped bass.
They are filter fish. They school together in huge numbers, swimming with their mouths open, feeding on plankton and zooplankton..
And because there are so many of them, other, larger fish eat them. So do seabirds. So do seabound mammals.
Mary Ellen Mateleska, director of education at Mystic Aquarium, said that as the Sound’s water quality has improved, menhaden are becoming more common.
As a result, she said, more creatures come to feed in the Sound. There are now four seal species that live there.
“Twenty years ago, you might have found three,’’ she said.
And, she said, people now see Atlantic white-sided dolphins plying the Sound’s waters.
And on rare occasions, they’ve seen whales, including humpback whales, fin whales and minke whales.
“They might be swimming up the coast and they follow the fish,’’ Matelska said.
Humans don’t eat menhaden. But they catch them to hook on their lines as bait fish.
Native Americans used them as fertilizer. Menhaden may have been the fish the Pilgrim Fathers used to feed their hills of squash and corn.
Because they’re oily little fish, they’re also netted in great numbers and turned into fish oil supplements. Those Omega-3 supplements people pop may be menhaden-based.
They also netted in great numbers, ground up and fed to animals. Poultry farms use fish food to feed their chickens.
Which, said Waldman of Queens College, leaves us with a choice.
“Society has to decide whether it wants a healthy environment,’’ he said, “Or KFC.’’
Contact Robert Miller at
Robert Miller has been working as a reporter in western Connecticut since 1978. He has covered the environment for about half that time. In 2014, he retired from day-to-day reporting, but has continued to write a weekly column on the environment for The News-Times in Danbury. He’s a birder and a gardener and a bookworm who lives in the exurbs – the rural suburbs. He thinks the world we live in — even his tiny corner — is an endlessly fascinating place and he has been very lucky to write about it.