menhaden feat 2
photograph by State Archives of North Carolina

Menhaden_drawingfish

This is a fish unlikely to end up pan-seared, sprinkled with parsley, and served with a lemon wedge at any restaurant. It’s smelly, oily, and bony. Very bony. It has more of a reputation as manure than a meal. Long before European settlers arrived on these shores, Native Americans put whole carcasses in the soil to fertilize crops. It’s a saucer-eyed fish, with a tail that forks like open scissors, swimming around with its mouth open as if in a constant stupor.

The proper name for this fish is menhaden, spawned from the Native American word munnawhatteaug — that which manures. Hardly appetizing. But around Beaufort and Morehead City, on over to Harkers Island, up along the banks of Core Sound, most people have always called it shad. The menhaden has other, more memorable monikers: Pogey. Bunker. Fatback. Bugfish. Bugmouth.

They’re lowly, homely fish — unlikely to ever end up mounted on a wall — swarming in schools at the water’s surface but dangling near the bottom of the food chain. They grow up to 15 inches long. They exist to eat and be eaten. What they eat is plankton, the microscopic plants and tiny organisms drifting in warm, shallow seawater. Menhaden are essentially vacuum cleaners of the sea, each adult capable of filtering six to seven gallons of water in a minute.

Their destiny is to be supper for bigger fish and birds. Or to be caught in massive nets and ground into plant food. Or to be minced into meal for dog food and cat food. Or to be cooked and squeezed to extract their oil for use in paint, linoleum, soap, and Omega-3 dietary supplements.

In short, the menhaden doesn’t have much to look forward to in life.

But it was long the king mackerel of the local economy and culture around Beaufort. The North American menhaden industry began in the Northeast in the early 1800s but moved south as the fish populations dwindled. North Carolina became a prize catch for menhaden industrialists, largely because the fish migrated to the state’s capes in whopping numbers during the fall. And thus began a long chapter in the history of this coast — a tale of men and menhaden, of livelihoods built on a fish nobody would ever mount on a wall. This bony forage-feeder permeated the lives of people here for generations.

Menhaden boom

Menhaden processing started in North Carolina shortly after the Civil War, though it wasn’t until the 1890s that factories began netting real success. “The shad industry, that is what built Beaufort,” says Jennifer Taylor, a Carteret County native who works at the Core Sound Waterfowl Museum and Heritage Center on Harkers Island. Throughout the 20th century, more than a dozen menhaden companies in Carteret County provided generations of workers — boat captains, boat pilots, engine runners, ring setters, fish bailers, factory foremen, shore engineers — with a dependable livelihood. The last factory, Beaufort Fisheries on Front Street, closed in 2005 and was razed a few years later.

Ask the natives what they remember about the menhaden plant, and the answer is communally quick: “The smell,” says Margaret Daniels, who also works in the museum. “It stunk.”

“Smelled to high heaven,” Taylor says to underscore the point.

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But along this coast, people recognized the odor as the “smell of money,” an oft-quoted phrase in local history narratives. The shad season began in May and lasted through mid-January, with fleets plying the ocean and the sounds, usually only a mile or so from shore. Fall was always the most happening time, when the seasonal migration had the waters teeming, and fishermen flocked here from other states to earn “Christmas money.” The fish travel in schools so thick and so expansive — one school can equal the size of a football field — that from the air, they resemble oil slicks, a purplish mat of fin and flesh.

Before 1946, when spotter pilots in planes began scanning the horizon for schools, a crewman would stand high atop the boat’s mast, on a platform called the crow’s nest, to gaze for these masses of menhaden. When a school was spotted, a small wooden boat — the striker boat, as it was called — would be dropped into the water with one man aboard. Milton Styron worked in a striker boat when he was in his 20s. He’s 89 now and lives in Davis, a smattering of homes, a corner store, and ferry landing along Core Sound.

In a standing position, the striker would row out to the school, remove one oar from its lock, and point to the fish, thus keeping their location in view for the rest of the crew. At 24, Styron was considered a “young’un” by his workmates. On one occasion, he feared he had seriously let them down when he lost sight of a school. “They were discouraged, they were discouraged,” he says.

And then — at last! — the fish broke water.

The crew broke out in jubilation. “They started hollerin’,” he recalls. “They were some kind of tickled. I went from young’un to a hero!”

Once the striker man pointed out the school, two bigger wooden boats would be lowered into the water. Each boat was boarded by at least a dozen men — these men were almost exclusively black — who encircled the school with a purse seine net.

The chanteymen

As the bows of the two boats came closer together, the net closed, or pursed, at the bottom to keep the menhaden from escaping. Then came the really hard part: raising the net, bulging with tens of thousands of fish, literally tons of fish, so they could be densely packed for bailing onto the mother boat. This was backbreaking, muscle-aching, hand-callusing labor that demanded these men work together — pull together — in unison. To keep everyone synchronized, the men sang songs that were known as chanteys. The workers, away from home for days, weeks, or months at a time, came up with the words themselves. They were bluesy songs, carrying whiffs of homesickness and longing. Here’s one chantey printed in Barbara Garrity-Blake’s 1994 dissertation, The Fish Factory:

I left my baby 

Standing in the back door crying.

She said, “Daddy, don’t go,

Lord, Lord, Daddy, don’t go.”

Some chanteys had a stick-it-to-the-man tone, expressing the solidarity the crew members shared with one another. A case in point:

Captain, if you fire me, fire me, fire me

Captain, if you fire me,

You got to fire my buddies, too.

Ernest Davis worked from sunup to long past sundown as a chanteyman. He’s 74 years old now, and one of only a few chanteymen still living in the Beaufort area. He began working in 1955, when he was 16 years old. “Oh, gosh, it was hard,” he says, sitting in his home in the North River community, a vast marsh of dun-colored grass sweeping off from his backyard. He’s just come home from church in his Buick sedan, several children and grandchildren gathered for Sunday dinner. “It would be so cold, your hands would freeze up. It was tough back then.”

His workday would often stretch into the wee hours, especially when the crew had a big roundup. “They were just hardworkin’ fish,” he says. “Sometimes it would take up there to the middle of the night to get ’em. You gotta stay there and wrestle with ’em. You can’t turn ’em loose.”

In the thick of the fish fight, he and all the other men sang. Every crew member was expected to lift his voice while lifting the net. They had a finely tuned system. A rhythm. “And you had to sing it together, too, or you wouldn’t be there the next day,” Davis says. This singing was part of the job description — keep quiet, and you wouldn’t keep your job. “Yeah, they’d pull you off,” he says.

menhaden 1

The music rolled across the water like swells in a prevailing wind. “We made ’em up overnight,” Davis says of the chanteys. “We’d be so cold, we couldn’t sleep. We just sat up there and sang all night. Every night, we’d make up a song and sing it the next day.”

One crew member sang the first line of each verse, and then the entire crew joined in on the chorus. “All them boys get hooked up together, you got something pretty,” one unidentified crew member told Garrity-Blake in The Fish Factory.

During a recent visit to the Core Sound museum, Garrity-Blake reflected on her nearly 30-year fascination with the menhaden heritage of North Carolina and Virginia’s Chesapeake Bay. Her immersion began in 1985, when she was a 20-something anthropology student watching a public hearing about the impact of menhaden fishing on sport anglers. “So I was like, ‘what is a menhaden?’ ” she says. “It was just so interesting to me. There was such a heated, ongoing battle between these recreational fishermen and this industry that was being represented by the factory owner, not the fishermen.”

The fishermen had a meager pay, but their bodies often paid dearly. Garrity-Blake writes that crewmen were known to drown or suffer heart attacks from extreme exertion. Some couldn’t straighten their fingers at the end of the day, what with all the clutching and clawing. “Fishermen maintained that the backbreaking task of menhaden fishing was possible only because group singing generated a special ‘boost’ or ‘power’ that allowed them to raise what could not otherwise be raised by human strength alone,” she writes.

James “Poppy” Frazier was another chanteyman. He’s among a dozen locals interviewed by Garrity-Blake for a 2010 exhibit at the Core Sound museum called “Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing.” The conversations are true gems — raw, honest, detailed. All made a living in menhaden. It wasn’t just the strenuous labor that beset the men on menhaden boats; the elements flexed their muscle, too. “I’ve been in some storms,” Frazier says in the interview. “Sure has. Got in one, the Douglas S. Edwards sink in the Beaufort bar. I’ll never forget it. She was loaded with fish and it come a 60-mile-an-hour wind. And the boats were loaded with fish, and she couldn’t make it. She was an old boat. She went down. Nobody got drownded, though.”

The music of the chanteymen began to fade by the early 1960s, with the introduction of the hydraulic power block. These mechanized pulleys meant muscles and music alone were no longer needed to hoist the nets. Given the camaraderie of the chanteymen, one is quick to assume that old crewmen like Ernest Davis look back all misty-eyed, lamenting the loss of lyrical teamwork.

Kinda.

“I miss the guys I used to work with,” he says. But the work itself? “Nah.”

In his interview for “Raising the Story,” Frazier talks of missing the songs. “Yes, ma’am. Yes, ma’am, them were good songs.”

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The decline of an industry

By the 1970s, Beaufort was angling for bigger and more glamorous fish: the swarms of vacationers and retirees from inland cities and northern climes. A smelly old fish factory, front and center on Front Street, stuck out like a callused thumb. But plant and pleasure-seeker coexisted for years. The smell — well, that was part of Beaufort’s soul and identity. The town launched a revitalization project. Old houses were spruced up. Bed-and-breakfasts opened.

By the 1980s, sport anglers were raising a very public stink over the menhaden industry. They claimed fishermen were breaking the food chain by exploiting menhaden. “Put a stop to the continuing rape of this valuable baitfish chain,” one man wrote to fisheries officials. They argued that trophy fish such as king mackerel, tarpon, and bluefish were in decline because menhaden fishermen were depleting their food supply.

All the while, tourism was flourishing, with the region advertising itself as the Crystal Coast. The mechanics of the menhaden business just didn’t jibe with the public’s imagination of an idyllic seaside town. People complained about the boats — how they looked too grimy and industrial, how they came in riding low from all the fish aboard.

Alton Dudley, who grew up in Lennoxville, spent a career captaining those menhaden boats. Here’s how he puts it in his interview for “Raising the Story”: “Everybody loves a shrimp boat. Everybody hates a menhaden boat. They write songs and stories about shrimp boats and they write their congressmen about menhaden boats.”

By 2005, Beaufort Fisheries, the last menhaden factory in North Carolina, became mothballed. Jule Wheatly, the co-owner and manager, who died in 2011, was also interviewed for the museum project. He says the high real estate prices driven by development, combined with the high costs of maintaining aging equipment, convinced the company’s board it was time to sell. There were other factors: increasing complaints about the smell, increasing regulations, increasing stress.

It was time.

“Heartbreaking,” many a native has said.

A few years later, spurred by recreational fishing interests, North Carolina banned the industrial-scale purse seining of menhaden in state waters.

It was done.

People do still make a living in menhaden — just not here. The Omega Protein Corporation, based in Houston, Texas, is now the industry’s dynamo, running factories in Reedville, Virginia, and on the Louisiana coast.

And the menhaden is still very much a part of the food chain, dangling as it does near the bottom. So when you sit down to a filet of fish, sprinkled with parsley and squirted with a lemon wedge, you can bet there’s a hint of menhaden in there, too.

• • •
 

Core Sound Waterfowl Museum & Heritage Center
1785 Island Road
Harkers Island, N.C. 28531
(252) 728-1500
coresound.com

Listen to recordings from “Raising the Story of Menhaden Fishing” at carolinacoastalvoices.com.

This story was published on

Mims is a reporter for WRAL News. He was the 2012 Television News Reporter of the Year.