Bringing in the Fish (The Oiliest Catch–Part 2)
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 7, 2012
At dawn one recent morning, just off Tangier Island in mid-Chesapeake, the start of the day’s fishing felt like a military maneuver, with a fleet of big boats—up to 170 feet in length—milling about and spotter planes circling in a Cessna dogfight overhead. “Can’t get my eye on any color right now,” a pilot drawled over the radio on the Indian Creek, a former Navy tug now converted to purse-seine fishing. Menhaden travel in such densely packed schools that they appear as inky splotches on the surface. Spotter pilots become adept at reading the color and the “whips”—or surface splashing—to estimate the number of fish to the nearest 10,000.
Menhaden breed offshore, and the juveniles then make their way into estuaries, with the Chesapeake serving as the most important nursing ground on the Atlantic seaboard by far. Some menhaden overwinter there. Others begin to arrive in May as vast schools of menhaden migrate northward. “I see two or three here this morning,” said the pilot, meaning schools of fish. “They ain’t no whackers, but they’re worth a set.”
A big, open tub of a boat with six crewmen aboard motored away from the Indian Creek. Under direction from the airplane, it dropped a 1,200-pound sea anchor with one end of its purse seine attached and began paying out the rest—900 feet of buoyed rope from which the net drifted down like a curtain. “Steady, steady, steady,” said the pilot, as the boat slowly circled. “Come right around on ‘em. Lookin’ good. Got every bit of it. Now, just like that, go into the sea anchor. Color there is good.”
With the net now surrounding the school of menhaden, the crew began drawing in a rope that runs through metal rings along the bottom edge, cinching it closed like a coin purse. The clanking of metal parts mixed with sounds of water sheeting down, men shouting, and the spattering of the fish across the surface as the circle steadily contracted around them.
Men in their oilskins reached over to haul in the net, their faces straining, hair flecked with fish scales. The Indian Creek, which had now pulled alongside, lowered a big vacuum tube down into the seething pocket of fish, and the menhaden came flying up into the fish hold, where the streams of chiller water turned murky red with blood and oil.
The Indian Creek would sell that day’s catch to the bait trade, mainly for crabbers in the Chesapeake and lobstermen as far north as Maine. But most of the other boats that day were bound for Omega Protein, where 550 million menhaden a year get reduced to fish meal and oil—and ultimately transformed into human food.