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Small Town, Split Reputation (The Oiliest Catch–Part 1)

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 7, 2012

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Heading out of Reedville, past the restored smokestack of an old fish meal factory (All photos by Richard Conniff)

By Richard Conniff (Conservation Magazine)

The small town of Reedville, Virginia, on the western shore of Chesapeake Bay, is a 1950s, Norman Rockwell sort of place. Bunting hangs from a white picket fence ahead of a holiday weekend, and there’s a tire swing in a front yard. The big, handsome houses on Main Street have wraparound porches and a smattering of gingerbread on the gable peaks.

Reedville is also still a working town. Summer days start around 5 a.m. with the thrum and rumble of heavy diesels as the big fishing boats head out, followed at 5:50 by the whine of the spotter planes taking off. If a fishy smell, or even the occasional stink, wafts across Cockrell Creek from the Omega Protein Corporation’s fish-processing plant—Reedville’s major employer—locals just breathe deeper. They recently raised $350,000 to restore a beloved landmark, the 130-foot-tall smokestack of another fishmeal factory, now defunct.

For almost 140 years, Reedville’s prosperity has depended on one species: the Atlantic menhaden, Brevoortia tyrannus. It’s a modest-looking little fish, generally under a foot in length, with a deeply forked tail and such rich reserves of oil that it’s sometimes called “the soybean of the sea.” A school of them leaves a slick in its wake. Dutch Harbor, Alaska, is the nation’s largest fishing port by tonnage and gets celebrated in “The Deadliest Catch” television series. But Reedville, home of the oiliest catch, comes in second—and gets widely vilified for it.

420Menhaden used to be unbelievably abundant on the Atlantic seaboard. When Captain John Smith visited the Chesapeake 400 years ago, he found them “lying so thicke with their heads above the water” that his crew tried to skip a step and “catch them with a frying pan.” New York Harbor, according to a 1679 Dutch travel account, also swarmed with “whales, tunnies and porpoises” as well as with osprey, all feeding on “marsbankers.” (Mossbunker, or bunker, is still a common name for the species.) Harvesting this resource became the business of the menhaden “reduction” industry in the mid-nineteenth century, after a fisherman’s wife in Blue Hill, Maine, figured out how to separate the oil from the menhaden’s flesh. As recently as the 1980s, dozens of reduction plants from Florida to Maine were still at it.

But now the menhaden are going bust, according to a highly vocal coalition of scientists, conservationists, and recreational fishermen. Whereas they were once abundant along the entire Atlantic seaboard, the fishery has shrunk to an area from Virginia to New Jersey, and the annual catch has plummeted by almost 80 percent since the 1950s. Omega Protein executives like to point out that the commercial fishery leaves enough menhaden in the water to produce 18.4 trillion menhaden eggs annually. It sounds like a big number, and in theory it’s almost double what’s needed to maintain the species at target levels. But that 18.4 trillion is down from a peak of 117 trillion in 1961. Moreover, something in the process of turning those eggs into grown-up fish has gone badly awry in recent decades. Conservationists say overfishing is the problem, and they liken the collapse of the menhaden to the decimation of the great bison herds and the extinction of the passenger pigeon in the nineteenth century. Three-quarters of the remaining catch now goes to Reedville, which has the East Coast’s last surviving reduction plant.

Hence Reedville’s split reputation. Depending on your point of view, it is a manufacturing center for what has lately become one of the healthiest and most highly prized products on the planet—omega-3 fatty acids in the form of fish meal and fish oil. Or it is the Death Star for marine species on the entire Atlantic seaboard.

Read Bringing in the Catch (The Oiliest Catch–Part 2)

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