Dead Pogie Season (The Oiliest Catch–Part 5)
Posted by Richard Conniff on December 7, 2012
People who study fisheries often worry about “shifting baselines,” the insidious tendency to lose track of history and make decisions based only on living memory. It’s what drives fishermen to oppose regulation on the grounds that they had a good catch just last week, or last year—never mind how things looked 40 or 400 years ago. And yet, if you need a sense for how bad things have gotten with menhaden, sometimes memory serves just fine.
In Maine, where they are known as pogies, menhaden were abundant enough in the early 1990s to be deemed a nuisance. Under hot pursuit by bluefish and other predators, whole schools of them would pile into narrow estuaries, where they soon consumed all the available oxygen and died. Horrified vacationers awoke to find fish floating in vast, stinking, yellow mats. Lobsters actually climbed out of the water in desperation. A headline announced, “Massive Kill Means Dead Pogy Season Has Arrived.” The good news was that Maine fishermen caught 60,000 tons of menhaden in a season then. Their biggest customer was a rusting, Soviet-era factory ship named the Riga, which had anchored offshore and was doing a brisk business grinding up menhaden to feed chickens and pigs back in Murmansk.
I got a first-hand sense of how abundant the menhaden were one summer 20 years ago, when I headed out of Rockland, Maine, at midnight aboard a fishing boat named the Bobby E, bound toward an amber light a few miles offshore. To get aboard the Riga, I had to step off the Bobbie E in the dark, clamber across great, elephantine Yokohama fenders floating at the waterline, and climb a skewed wood-and-rope ladder banging against the hull.
The Riga’s factory equipment was primitive. A noisy conveyor belt delivered the fish to a device like a paper shredder which reduced them to a kind of brown sludge, and then . . . but you don’t really want to know. Every surface of the processing area was caked with fishmeal, as if breaded and fried. Fishmeal also drifted up in the corners, like dust in the bottom of a cereal box. An American intermediary living on board told me he had killed a dozen rats in his cabin just within the past month.
What really stuck in my memory, though, was the abundance of menhaden. Riga crewmen, including the ship dentist, vied to work as “lumpers” down in the hold of the Bobby E. Their job, by the light of a bare 60-watt bulb, was to climb up the great walls of stacked menhaden and kick them down in an avalanche toward a large vacuum tube, to be sucked up onto the ship. They came out smeared head to toe in menhaden gore, but with 50 cents a ton in their pockets.
When I woke up next morning back in Rockland, that whole night seemed like a strange dream, and it still seems like a dream today because the menhaden soon vanished from the coast of Maine. The annual menhaden catch there is now close to zero, and it’s stayed that way for almost 20 years. In fact, in all of New England only a single bait company still fishes for menhaden. It’s based in Rhode Island but often has to travel to New Jersey to find fish.
A few people in Virginia still remember the Riga, too, and it serves them as a fallback line of defense. If there really is something wrong with the menhaden fishery, they told me, it isn’t the fault of Omega Protein’s menhaden fleet in Reedville.
They blamed it on the Russians instead.