Stripers and Salps

Please consider all images as copyrighted and ask permission to use for any reason. Thanks, DEClapp

As the last few posts have shown we have been walking the great outer beach around Race Point a lot. Actually a whole lot! Just ask my hips and knees. Four or five miles in soft sand that slopes sharply to the sea is testing. It wears a person out but it is the only way to get to certain places where the ocean wildlife meets the shore. There is a strong and rather permanent “race” where the Atlantic waters and the water leaving Cape Cod Bay brush against each other. Brush is a gentle word for a strong interface that roils the water and creates upwellings that enrich the area. Enriched water attracts fish, birds, and marine mammals. It is worth the walk.

We have done this walking/hiking/toiling mostly for the birds; often wintering birds that otherwise cannot be easily seen in our area. This group of unusual cold weather visitors includes Black-legged Kittiwake (BLKI), Little Gull (LIGU), and Pacific Loon (PALO). There are always our wintering ducks and grebes out there as well; birds like Red-breasted Merganser (RBME), all three scoter species, and lots of Common Eider (COEI) and Common Loon (COLO). In the summer it is possible to see four pelagic (purely oceanic) birds called shearwaters (Cory’s, Sooty, Manx, Great) looking out from this part of the Cape. These birds soar over the waves day after day and night after night, no matter the weather. Some migrate from near Antarctica in a giant circle that takes them all around the Atlantic; up the South American and North American coast and the under Greenland to Europe and then back down the African coast and our to Antarctica again.

Race Point is a destination with the Cape Cod National Seashore but most visitors look out into the vast sea toward Portugal and maybe sit in the sand for a while. From shore the wildlife mentioned above is often visible if you look hard and long enough, as are the Humpback Whales that are very common in the summer. The Northern Right Whale is an early season visitor and the Fin and Minke Whales can be seen in the summer as well. Not to mention the very common Gray Seal and the (now) less common Harbor Seal.

But the migrants in this area are not all birds or mammals – there are two very important fish that arrive here and depend on a third migratory fish (actually a group of smallish migrants) called Alewives, Herring, and Menhaden. These are the staple fish of our sea. They are the forage fish that feed the bigger fish. In some parts of the world there are Capelin, Sardines, and Sand Lance that do much the same thing. Here in the northeastern corner of the US we have Sand Lance (good whale food) as well as herring and pogeys, or menhaden. These fish are plankton eaters and are consumed by Striped Bass, Bluefish, Tuna and many other predators of the ocean.

Herring and Alewives have been harvested (that is harvested not fished) for a couple centuries. They have been ground into fertilizer and pet food by the ton year after year. The billions of herring recorded in old books and ledgers are all gone. However, for the last decade or so they have been left alone. There is a moratorium on their harvest right now and the numbers are rebounding a bit. Not so that the ocean is teeming with them but there are more and more each year. They are Plankton eaters and leave the sea to move into fresh water ponds to deposit eggs. They are eaten by mammals, gulls, and marine mammals as they make this migration. Those that survive head back to the sea. In September, or so, the creeks turn silver as tens of thousands of youngsters swim downstream and into the salt water looking for the next phase in their metabolically complex life.
The Humpback Whales that summer along our shores are primarily feeding on forage fish; in our case that is the Sand Lance. Look in the lower jaw of this feeding whale and your can see a couple dozen small fish leaping out of the whales maw. It may be a bit hard to grasp but these huge creatures eat lots and lots of very small creatures. When forage fish or krill are harvested by commercial means they have a significant impact on the natural balance in the ocean. You cannot have a system without a foundation. Krill and forage fish are very important items within the middle of the foundation.
Fishing has been a staple of the diet and economy in this area since the Basques first took cod from these waters 500 years ago. Well the cod are depleted pretty much beyond sustainability but there are a few game and food fish still here. As spring arrives the birders are getting out every day as are the fishermen. This fellow is about to return a small Striped Bass to the water. The first stripers to arrive are the “schoolies” and most of them are undersized. By the end of May there are larger bass along the shore.
The next fish was larger and a keeper. I am not sure if he actually kept it but it was legal. Many fishermen go fishing to get outdoors. It is like walking, hiking, birding, kayaking, and so on – a chance to be alone in nature surrounded by wonders beyond comprehension; deep within the ebb and flow of evolution. Of course there is always the challenge of figuring out what the fish or bird is going to do and where it will be or the challenge of a longer or faster walk. But it’s the outdoors that calms our nature. Nature calming nature – try it.
What else would you call it? Striped Bass for sure. This is now a highly managed species and its population has had its ups and downs. This year, 2020, has seen a severe restriction on the harvest of Striped Bass. The numbers have dropped again and management is being initiated. They do not spawn in most of the Atlantic coast rivers as they did in the past. They spawn in fresh water and the Hudson River is one of its last spawning rivers; although there are populations in Cape Cod Bay, Chesapeake Bay, and the Delaware River as well. Nowadays a 25 pound fish is pretty good size but there are a few above 50 pounds caught every year. Both small and large fish have to be released.,
These last two images are of another beach creature that a birder may notice – or maybe not. The shiny blobs are salps. Salps are gelatinous creatures that simply drift in the ocean waters. They don’t have stingers and they don’t swim. They are like soft squishy jelly beans that merely pump water through themselves and extract tiny bits of plankton. They are a macro-plankton animal. When the winds blow them in from the edges of the Gulf Stream and there is plenty of food (and hence plenty of reproduction) they can “wreck” on the shore. In long lines of shiny blobs – interesting, sort of pretty, and kind of sad.

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