Bay Journal

Out of the frying pan & into the fryer: Bay’s menhaden fishery history

  • By Kent Mountford on April 01, 1999

They were experiencing hot Chesapeake weather the summer of 1608. It must have been brutal for Captain John Smith and his men trapped under that broiling sun in heavy, woolen European clothing.

Summer winds on the Bay are often driven by warm air rising from the sunlit land, drawing cooler air shoreward from over the water. But by July, the Bay warms to the point where its temperature is almost equal to that of the air, and the differential to produce any wind at all became weak. John Smith’s crewmates were probably rowing the two-ton barge, “Discoverie,” much of the time. Packed into that small vessel, they had been away from Jamestown for more than a month.

Their search for gold mines had come to naught, but this was a new world, and with some exhortation from their leader, they persevered. “To express all our quarrels, treacheries, and encounters…” wrote Anthony Bagnall and fellow sojourners, “…I should be too tedious…” Yet, he did remark upon the extraordinary abundance of some fish: “…and in divers places that abundance of fish, lying so thick with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan: but we found it a bad instrument to catch fish with…”

Menhaden at that time of summer are small fish and swim so closely packed that the hungry explorers’ attempts to scoop some up in a pan are understandable. It seems impossible not to catch a few. They are like lightning, though, and in the merest instant dash aside and disperse out of sight down into the water column. Bluefish, one of their most efficient predators, have the advantage of attacking from below, hidden by the darkness of the depths, where they sweep though the school, harvesting menhaden faster than the latter can escape. This is how big game fish get bigger.

The explorers were probably confusing these young, growing menhaden (which as adults will spawn in the ocean) with the schools of herring that had come into the Bay earlier in the year and spawned in the upper tributaries. Had they caught any menhaden, they would have found these bony and oily fish substantially less toothsome.

Colonists, once they learned that menhaden were different, separated them from true river spawners, calling the former “oldwives” or “alewife.”

Young menhaden school endlessly, filtering microscopic plankton from the warm, fertile Chesapeake and quickly gain weight. Centuries earlier, Native Americans had developed a passive fishing device that relied on tide, river currents and the natural behavior of many fish, which swim toward deeper water when a barrier is encountered, and when enclosed, swim in a circle. George Percy wrote of this device in 1607:

They are“ingenious enough in their own works, as may testify their weirs in which they take their fish, which are certain enclosures made of reeds and framed in the fashion of a labyrinth or maze set a fathom deep in the water with diverse chambers or beds out of which the entangled fish cannot return or get out, being once in…(where) he remains a prey to the fisherman the next low water which they fish with a net at the end of a pole.”

The Native American weir was eventually replaced by the pound net, a row of poles driven into the bottom running out perpendicular to the shore and linked by a net curtain, with a trap or “pocket” of mesh at the outer end where the fish would mill about until the netting, which formed the floor of the pocket, was raised to harvest them.

All sorts of fish were taken, and the incidental catch of menhaden was not the most desirable. They were considered “bycatch” — accidental inclusions. They might be used to feed the hogs, as fertilizer if the season were right, or they might be discarded overboard where they were eaten by scavengers or decayed.

How does a fish going about its business of eating plankton get a scientific name? The first scientist to actually describe the fish seems to be Latrobe, who published an article in the transactions of the American Philosophical Society in 1802, 196 years after John Smith’s encounter described earlier. But Latrobe thought it was a herring and called it Clupea tyrannus. Over the next 81 years, other scientists, taking a closer look, realized it was more closely related to other fish and attempted to give it a new name: Mitchell in 1815 called it Clupea menhaden; Uhler and Lugger in 1876 called it Brevoortia menhaden; until finally, in 1883, Bean put Brevoortia tyrannus together.

In the days before electric lights, lamp oil produced from whales was an expensive commodity. Technology developed in 1812 was able to produce lamp oil from menhaden (though not as clean-burning as the whale oil). The menhaden industry first developed between 1865 and 1874 in Maine and Rhode Island, where large, adult fish were harvested as they migrated along the coast. There were 20 factories at one point where the fish were steam-cooked in tanks.

Shortly after the end of the Civil War, in 1869, Mege Mouries, of France, produced a rendered beef-fat product known as margarine. Sales grew quickly in Europe, where the population was outstripping the ability of the dairy industry to produce butter. By the turn of the century, advances in chemistry allowed similarly hardened (semi-solid) products to be produced from fish oils.

Occasionally in the early 1900s, butter was fraudulently adulterated with this cheaper product. In the United States, a federal tax on margarine was passed in 1886, followed by state taxes and an outright ban on its sale in some places. An angry dairy lobby argued that any margarine sold should be colored green!

From 1873–1877, a half billion fish — 1.7 billion pounds — were harvested, averaging more than 3 pounds apiece. They yielded more than 2.5 million gallons of oil and 50,000 tons of fertilizer. When shortages of fats and oils developed during World War I, oil from the abundant California sardine came into its own as a source of margarine and shortening products until this species almost disappeared. The West Coast processing plants folded and menhaden were in their ascendancy. Oils began to appear not only as shortening, but eventually in hundreds of industrial products.

Pound net fisherman could not meet the demand, so once again, technology came forward with purse seine boats. New “fish factories” sprang up along the Atlantic Seaboard. In the mid-1940s, menhaden, or “moss bunker” boats — unencumbered by the fear of German submarines at the end of World War II — appeared off the New Jersey Shore where I was growing up. They were unmistakable in profile: a high bow and wheelhouse, a low “waist” where the fish were brought aboard and a prominent, enclosed crow’s-nest topping a lofty mast.

Silhouetted against the morning sun, we could almost always see several ships lying to off the beach, their seine boats paying out net as they surrounded a school. The nets would be drawn in, the bottom “pursed” with a heavy cable as drawstring, and an immense vacuum pump hose shoved down into the roiling mass of fish, which were sucked up violently with pumps. The “gurry,” or offal, of water, bits of scale, fin and hundreds of gallons of oily blood spewed over the side to the disgust of swimmers on the adjacent beach.

Recreational fishermen threw a fit when bunker boats came into the area and fished the same schools that were drawing striped bass and bluefish. These non-target game species became the new bycatch, a controversy that still rages. The water pollution, rampant with that old-fashioned technology, was uncontrolled.

Laden till their decks were nearly awash, the bunker boats headed for the nearest factory to unload and get out on the water again. By the mid-1950s, 15 more plants dotted the coast from Portland, ME to Fernandina Beach, FL. Plants of note in the Chesapeake area were located in Reedville, VA and Whitestone, VA. You could smell these plants for tens of miles downwind, a blend of decaying fish and burning tissue as the rendering and processing went on. “Smell of bacon frying” said some Reedville advocates of the business.

Efficiency in the fishery continued to improve. Small aircraft are used to spot schools from the air and radios direct boats and net deployments.

Some experts believe the stock could be overfished. The size of menhaden caught is getting smaller and younger. Young fish, “peanut menhaden,” leaving the estuary in autumn can be caught off the Carolinas in their first year, without ever having had the chance to reproduce.

The menhaden fishery business has contracted, and harvests from all along the coast are brought in to central plants. In Reedville, sole survivor of the processing industry between North Carolina and Maine, one can still smell “bacon frying” from the one remaining company, Omega Protein.

Used in the manufacture of industrial products from fiber board, to soap, to inks and paint, menhaden oil touches every one of us.

Although margarine has become a staple in the U.S. diet, by the time the Food and Drug Administration developed “standards of identity’ for it, fish oils were no longer used, so they missed being listed as an acceptable ingredient. But menhaden oil products still permeate U.S. food industry and are probably somewhere in the diet of almost every American today. Menhaden margarine may no longer be on the market, but it’s likely, that as shortening, menhaden are finding their way into frying pans more directly than John Smith and his fellow travelers ever imagined.

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About Kent Mountford

Dr. Kent Mountford is senior scientist for the Chesapeake Bay Program in Annapolis.

Read more articles by Kent Mountford

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