National Geographic : 1949 Jun
Menhaden-Uncle Sam's Top Commercial Fish By LEONARD C. Roy Illustrations by National GeographicPhotographerRobert F. Sisson MENHADEN, what are they? Most inlanders and even many salty citizens who help catch more than a billion each year might miss that question on a radio quiz program. For this fish prob ably has more nicknames than any other., In the months spent with menhaden fisher men I seldom heard the proper name. Yet more menhaden have been taken from American waters than any other species, and today they form the basis of Uncle Sam's largest commercial fishery. A Herring of Many Names Along the Maryland and Virginia coasts you hear leather-skinned men, who have been seining menhaden for a generation, speak of their hauls of bughead, bugfish, oldwife, alewife, greentail, and chebog. In Delaware you hear those names and mossbunker, too. Connecticut adds whitefish, bonyfish, and bunker. North Carolinians call them fatback, although now and then some one will mention shad or pogy. The fact that menhaden have never been popular for human consumption may be an other reason they are so little known. From time to time scarcity of food near the fisheries has landed small numbers on local dining tables, but attempts to market them as food fish on a commercial scale have failed. A menhaden canning plant was established at Morehead City, North Carolina, before World War 11, but after it was destroyed by fire in 1946 its owners abandoned the enter prise and there has been no attempt to erect another plant. The common complaint one hears about the edibility of the fish is that they are too oily, too mealy, and, for their size, too bony. Men haden roe, however, does find a market. I sampled it at Morehead City's Water Front Cafe. In taste it was not unlike shad roe, but it takes four to six to equal the roe of the average larger fish. The menhaden is one of the numerous members of the herring family. Last year over 1,417,000,000 menhaden, weighing more than 950,000,000 pounds, were processed. That is more than twice the poundage of the second-ranking fish, the salmon, and about four times the total of the menhaden's nearest rival in the Atlantic fisheries, the rosefish, or sea perch. When full grown, menhaden normally range from only three-quarters of a pound to a pound in weight and are about 12 inches in length. In nearly every menhaden plant office on the North Carolina coast one sees a cast of the daddy of them all, a five-year old which was 20 inches long and weighed 32 pounds. More people come into contact with men haden in some form than with any other fish. The thousands employed in the industry last year are a mere handful compared with the number who use menhaden oil and meal. The soap in your kitchen and bathroom is apt to contain menhaden oil. The linoleum on your kitchen or office floor, the varnish and paint that decorate the furniture and walls in your home, and your waterproof garments may have been made with the oil. Steel manu facturers use the oil in tempering their product. Since animal protein is important to the health of cattle, hogs, and poultry, menhaden meal, mixed with their food, often brings this fish indirectly to your dining table. Indians along the New England coast knew menhaden when the colonists arrived.* The name is derived from a Narragansett Indian word meaning "that which enriches the earth." The Indians placed a fish in each hill of corn to promote crops. White men found that the oil of the fish fouled their land. First Oil Factory on Rhode Island Coast Astute American businessmen turned the undesirable feature of the fish into an asset. The first oil "factory" rose on the Rhode Island coast. Oil was produced by the "rotting process." Large casks of fish, covered with water, were strewn along sun-drenched beaches. To press the contents of the casks, boards were placed atop the fish and weighted down with rocks. In a few days decomposition set in. As the tissues of the menhaden broke down, fish oil was liberated and skimmed from the water. The process was slow, the stench over whelming. While today's menhaden plants are not devoid of unpleasant odors, rapid handling of the fish has helped clear the atmosphere in their vicinity. Fish are seldom left un processed more than 24 hours after they have * See "America's First Settlers, the Indians," by Matthew W. Stirling, NATIONAL GEOGRAPHIC MAGA ZINE, November, 1937.