It is an oily little fish only surpassed by its ugliness. But to the Native Americans and subsequently the early settlers along the eastern seaboard, it was more valuable than caviar. When the settlers came to Virginia and New England, methods of growing food were much different than from their homelands. The soil was sandy and less fertile than home which made farming difficult. The Native Americans taught the colonists how to place two small fish in each hill where seeds were planted. The decomposition of the fish added the required nutrient, and corn, introduced to the colonist by the Indians, became a staple food for settlers. In long rows, the fish were laid end to end and covered up. As they decomposed, the usually sandy loam soil became much more fertile and would support crops.
The fish was called munnawhateaug
by the Native Americans. It has been called a variety of other names in English such as bunkers, porgy, fat back, yellow tail but mostly menhaden. The fish usually does not exceed 10-12 inches in size and its main diet is plankton making it a very important part of the aquatic food chain in the waters from Maine to the Mid-Atlantic.
The menhaden schooled very close to shore. They were harvested by haul sein nets from the shore, in gill nets worked by canoes or small boats, in pound nets, or in some cases schools of fish were pressed against the shoreline and scooped up in baskets.
Quite by accident, the oil produced by rendering the fish was found to be satisfactory for use instead of whale oil. In about 1850, an old lady named Mrs. John Barlett from Blue Hill, Maine was cooking some menhaden to feed to her chickens. She noticed as the fish boiled, there was an abundance of clear oil left on top of the water. According to an 1874 statement by Eben Phillips, an oil merchant in Boston, Mrs. Barlett skimmed the oil from the kettle and brought him a sample of the oil. He told her that he would pay $11 per barrel for all she could produce. The next year she produced 13 barrels and then 100 barrels the next year and so forth. As in the case of most “discoveries” by accident, a lady cooking chicken feed was the beginning of the menhaden industry along the East Coast from Maine to the Carolinas. The oil from these small fish huddled close to shore became competitors with the ocean going New England whalers producing lamp oil and oil for other uses. The by-product of boiling the fish was collected, ground and sold as fertilizer and refined for animal feed.
Fishing in New England states began to slow down in the mid-1860s, and it was determined that the largest supply of fish could be found from Virginia waters into the Carolinas. Elijah W. Reed, who had been cooking and pressing fish in Sedgwick, Maine, packed up his kettles in 1867 and came down the coast to what is now Hampton, Virginia. By 1868, he built several “camps” for processing menhaden. Over the next few years, these ‘kettle factories’ were moved further up the Chesapeake Bay and located along the shores of Northumberland County. The town of Reedville, located on Cockrell’s Creek, was the largest kettle site and remains there today. Omega Protein which began as a business 102 years ago is still operating.
Visitors and tourist still marvel at the main street in Reedville to this day. The beautiful Victorian era homes built by boat captains line both sides of the street. Many of these homes still display the “widows walk”, which are observation posts on the top of the houses where waiting families could look out into Chesapeake Bay for the returning fishing vessels.
The technology involved catching menhaden developed with the times. First they were caught from the shore using haul seine nets which were in some cases pulled by horses. The process of haul seining went from small sailing boats and oar power boats to steam powered ships. By the late 1800s, the newly developed purse seine nets, which were nets that hang vertically in the water with its bottom edge held down by weights and its top edge buoyed by floats. Purse seine nets are unique because they also have a draw line which closes the bottom of the net as the ends also come together. Purse boats, as they were called, would string the net around a school of fish spotted by crew members from the crow’s nest high above the deck. After encircling the school, the bottom of the net would be drawn shut, and the net was pulled in by hand. This was extremely hard work depending on the size of the catch. The task of hauling the nets was assigned to the men in deck force.
A tradition reflected by these men was one brought from Africa and the Caribbean. As they toiled, they would sing chanteys, which were songs that enabled the men to pull the heavy nets
in unison and with the necessary tempo. In The Men All Singing, a book chronicling the story of menhaden fishing by John Frye, the author tells of the chantey
and how beneficial it was to actually pulling the nets.
The chanteys, a maritime legacy, were brought to the United States by the slave population. They were nurtured and preserved as work songs, shanties or chanteys and were sung by African Americans as they worked on farms as well as on ships. The task and the need for all hands to work unison determined the song. Long after the hand-over-hand method of pulling nets had been replaced by mechanization, the chanteys remained. In an article by Harold Anderson, published in Marine Notes, a Maryland Sea Grant Publication, January – February 2000, reference is made to the Northern Neck Chantey Singers. This group of men had either worked on the boats, or were the descendants of men who did, during the time the chanteys were sung. The group still performs their centuries old chanteys throughout the Northern Neck, eastern Virginia and the Carolinas. An online search for the Northern Neck Chantey Singers will provide the schedule of performances.
Once the fish are brought to the surface in the nets, the large fishing vessel would load them into the hold by “tubs”. These tubs were lowered into the net containing thousands of fish and brought by hoist onto the mothership. They were then stored in large holds on the ships. It seldom took more than a day to complete a catch and return to the processing plants.
As mechanization and machinery evolved, these nets were more efficiently pulled by winches and blocks, allowing for greater volume of fish to be deposited directly into the ships holding tanks without using the tubs.
Menhaden fishing today has evolved into even a more highly technical and specific industry. Menhaden are targeted and carefully identified from the air by spotter planes. The menhaden schools are easily identified because of the way they school up, according to fish spotter pilots. This ensures menhaden fishing is the most careful in selecting and catching the target species. “The menhaden fishery is the cleanest in the world,” said Monty Diehl, vice president of operations for Omega Protein in Fleeton, Virginia. Other types of nets such a long gill nets and baited long lines used to catch fish indiscriminately catch whatever swims into them or whatever bites the bait. That is not an efficient way to catch a target species. The use of spotter planes and the acquired understanding of the migratory traits of the schools of menhaden contribute greatly to the efficiency of the harvesting process.
In a report filed by the Friends of the Sea, an industry watchdog organization, bycatch of other fish species in menhaden purse seines has been examined repeatedly since late 1800s, and the taking of non-target species is a relatively rare event. The overall bycatch is insignificant. Although some bay organizations from time to time have had some issues with Omega Protein, the company strives to manage the menhaden population so there is a sustainable population ensuring there will be jobs in the future.
In addition to the fish oil being used as a human/animal dietary supplement, the small menhaden fish also supplies components for makeup and even paint. This little fish with the very large resume is very important today just as it was years ago.
The impact of menhaden fishing
in lower Northumberland County has been significant. Not only does the industry contribute about 40 million dollars annually to the economy, it also provides a place where neighbors work daily and become closer as a community. Many families have been associated with the menhaden industry for generations. Reedville plant manager Monte Diehl
is the fourth generation of his family
to work for the companies that have called Reedville home. Other employees can say the same thing. Generations have earned their living from the waters around Reedville.
As with the tomato canning industry, menhaden fishing arrived at a time economic progress was greatly needed.
The years of the Civil War had cost the area most of the jobs, and people who could leave the area usually did not have the means. The Northern Neck, being blessed with opportunity provided by the access to waters, still is reaping these benefits. This does not come without risk. In the spring, the fish are off the Virginia coast and in the bay. Weather usually does not prove to be a problem. However, in the fall as the fish migrate south to the Carolinas, weather is a major factor. The Outer Banks of North Carolina have been called the “Graveyard of the Atlantic”. Sudden storms pushing seas as high twenty plus feet pose a tremendous risk to the boats. From time to time a vessel is lost with some or even all hands. This not only effects the families of the lost, but all families associated with the fleet and who have loved ones working the water. The watermen are a close bunch. The loss of one is a loss for all. So, the search for the ugly little oily fish that “saved” colonial America continues. When you see the bright blue boats fishing off the mouth of the Rappahannock, the Potomac and other local rivers, remember the contribution this oily little fellow made and continues to make. Companies such as Omega Protein in conjunction with other watermen in the area factor greatly in the local economies. The area is fortunate they all continue to produce goods, jobs and the very essence that is the Northern Neck…perseverance.