July: The Essential Menhaden

Chesapeake Almanac Podcast Episode and Transcript

Episode 16
Copyright © John Page Williams Jr. All rights reserved.

This is John Page Williams with another reading from "Chesapeake Almanac." The title of this sketch is "The Essential Menhaden."

Some years, John Hall sets a little pound net on the Potomac at the mouth of the Yeocomico River, on Virginia's Northern Neck. A fellow from up the beach happened by one morning early and asked what the net caught. "Bunkers mostly...mostly bunkers," said John.

If the visitor had been from the other side of the river, he might not have understood. Most Marylanders call them "alewives," although that term refers properly to their cousins, the river herring. But alewife or bogey or bunker or bugfish (as they call them up the Bay in Rock Hall), or Atlantic menhaden, commercial fishermen on the Chesapeake do catch a lot of them--several hundred million pounds a year.

That's an awful lot of fish. In fact, menhaden usually make Reedville, the town on the Northern Neck where most of them are landed, the largest fishing port on the Atlantic Coast in annual tonnage. Now what uses do we make of these fish?
The eighteenth-century naturalist Mark Catesby is quoted in John Frye's "The Men All Singing" as finding the menhaden "an excellent Sweet Fish." The species appeared in Washington markets regularly until late in the nineteenth century and some were packed for human consumption even early in the twentieth century. When absolutely fresh, they are indeed good, rich fish. But they are oily and bony, and they spoil very quickly. Tastes have changed, and bunkers never appear in markets any more. Most people are unaware of them, except as the source of stench from spring fish kills.

Because of the oil in their flesh, they are the primary bait used in commercial crab pots; by any measure, the crab pot industry goes through a million pounds of menhaden per day in season. The bait industry serving it involves a wide range of gear, from John Hall's little pound net to million-dollar purs-seiners with sophisticated refrigeration units that ensure good bait quality. A number of people around the Bay make a good living distributing the bait each day--getting it out to the crab-potters so that they are ready to fish their pots the next morning.

Recreational anglers use some as well. At the mouth of the Potomac, there is a large fleet of charter boats carrying parties from the tip of St. Mary's County in Maryland and from the Smith Point area on the Northern Neck. They specialize in chumming--ladling ground-up bunkers overboard from an anchored boat. The oily slick drifts downtide for more than a mile, attracting bluefish, rockfish, Spanish mackerel, occasional trout, drum, and cobia. Each boat goes through several bushels of chum a day. They add to the demand for bait.

The most visible, and the largest fishery for menhaden is in Virginia, with purse-seiners operating all over the lower Bay from their docks in Reedville. There are about nine of these vessels this year, all about 150 feet long. Each uses two purse boats--30 foot diesel-powered launches--to set a 600-yard-long net some 40 feet deep into a circle around a school of bunkers located by an airplane spotter. The fishermen purse a line running around the bottom of the net, forming it into a shallow bowl from which the big boat can pump the fish into its hold. This is how the majority of menhaden are caught in the Bay and along the Atlantic and Gulf coasts. Purse seine-caught fish are used primarily for industrial purposes, although some of the purse-seiners sell to the bait industry.

A century ago, the fish were caught for their oil, which was cooked out in kettles. It was used for tanning leather, manufacturing paint, tempering steel, and other processes. The leftover scrap was dried in the sun and sold as fertilizer. Today, the oil is used in cosmetics, paints, and pharmaceuticals, especially omega-3 capsules. Much of it is shipped to Europe as an ingredient in margarine. The leftover fish meal is high in protein. It finds a steady market as animal feed, especially for chickens and hogs.

New uses for menhaden products are being found every year. Though they have long been deemed too valuable to use as fertilizer, the fish are seldom considered fit to for humans, but that status may change as a hungry world turns to widespread use of powdered fish protein.

Man is not the only animal that preys on menhaden. Most of the Bay's bluefish bulge with them. Menhaden are also preyed on by rockfish, trout, cobia, flounder, Spanish mackerel, and every other large fish that eats small fish. In the Bay's upper tidal rivers where salinity is low, the 1- to 3-inch juvenile bunkers of summer are fed on by largemouth bass, channel catfish, blue catfish, and chain pickerel. Gulls, terns, and ospreys dive on the schools of young. In the shallows, herons stalk and spear them.

As John Frye and others have observed, menhaden are virtually designed to be eaten. In addition to their high levels of protein and oil, they are abundant and defenseless. They travel in dense schools, making them easy to find and easy to catch in large numbers.

Even so, Atlantic menhaden are able to withstand this tremendous predation and still have sufficient brood stock to maintain the population. How can they do it? Certainly they are fecund: much remains to be learned about spawning, but estimates are that females drop anywhere from 38,000 to 600,000 eggs at a time. More fundamental still is the menhaden's source of food. If there are that many fish out there, there has to be several times that much food available to them.

As one might expect, menhaden eat low on the food web. When first hatched, they feed selectively on zooplankton. But soon their gill rakers develop long feathery projections forward into the mouth, and they begin filter-feeding--swimming with their mouths open and straining water at the rate of several hundred gallons an hour. Food includes diatoms, which are photosynthetic plankton and algae, copepods, which are tiny crustaceans, and detritus, decayed plant and animal material.
In a rich estuary like the Chesapeake, the fish are everywhere in summer. Juveniles travel up the rivers in shoals, going all the way to the heads of tidal waters. Adults tend to stay in the lower rivers and the open Bay. They are omnivorous vacuum cleaners, eating much that is not usable by other creatures and turning it into high-quality protein.

We the public pay attention primarily to fish that are good to eat or sporting to catch. It is remarkable that such a major fishery resource could exist so unobtrusively on the Bay. Yet much of our food and sport fishery, and much of the Bay's economy, is dependent directly or indirectly on bunkers. We can be thankful for them whenever we broil a bluefish or bite into a crab cake.

For more on this powerful little fish, see our Atlantic Menhaden web page.

For more happenings around the Bay in July see our other Chesapeake Almanac podcasts and read our blog post "Life in an Eelgrass Bed."

Subscribe to this podcast at https://chesapeake-almanac.captivate.fm/listen

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