strange behaviors

Cool doings from the natural and human worlds

  • Richard Conniff

  • Reviews for Richard Conniff’s Books

    Every Creeping Thing: True Tales of Faintly Repulsive Wildlife: “Conniff is a splendid writer–fresh, clear, uncondescending, and with never a false step; one can’t resist quoting him.” (NY Times Book Review)

    The Species Seekers:  Heroes, Fools, and the Mad Pursuit of Life on Earth by Richard Conniff is “a swashbuckling romp” that “brilliantly evokes that just-before Darwin era” (BBC Focus) and “an enduring story bursting at the seams with intriguing, fantastical and disturbing anecdotes” (New Scientist). “This beautifully written book has the verve of an adventure story” (Wall St. Journal)

    Swimming with Piranhas at Feeding Time by Richard Conniff  is “Hilariously informative…This book will remind you why you always wanted to be a naturalist.” (Outside magazine) “Field naturalist Conniff’s animal adventures … are so amusing and full color that they burst right off the page …  a quick and intensely pleasurable read.” (Seed magazine) “Conniff’s poetic accounts of giraffes drifting past like sail boats, and his feeble attempts to educate Vervet monkeys on the wonders of tissue paper will leave your heart and sides aching.  An excellent read.” (BBC Focus magazine)

  • Wall of the Dead

  • Categories

  • Advertisements

The Last of the Pound-Netters

Posted by Richard Conniff on December 12, 2012


(Photos: Richard Conniff)

In the course of reporting on the menhaden fight, I spent a day out on one of the big, industrial-style ships that now dominate the fishery.  But I also got a chance to look in on an old style of fishing for menhaden that reminded me of the classic Chesapeake waterman in William B. Warner’s book Beautiful SwimmersMy host, Walter Rogers, manages to eke out a living in the same market as ships that harvest tens of thousands of times more fish per day.  It clearly isn’t easy, but he does it.  To me this suggests that it’s possible to have a reduced menhaden fishery and actually create more jobs by moving away from the current model of an industrial fishery dominated by a single large company, Omega Protein.  Moreover, this old model would encourage people to become independent entrepreneurs, not just wage slaves.  And that’s something to think on as the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission meets tomorrow to decide the fate of the menhaden:

I headed out of Cockrell Creek before dawn one morning, past Reedville’s restored smokestack, now brightly lighted up against an indigo sky.  Walter Rogers, a 48-year-old college-educated father of two, was at the helm of a classic Chesapeake Bay deadrise, the Glenna Fay, 40 feet long, powered by a 1940s Detroit Diesel engine, and with a wooden skiff tagging along behind.

Rogers catches menhaden much as his great-grandfather did, with pound nets.  Starting in February, he drives heavy pine poles into the bay bottom, then uses them to arrange his nets into a series of underwater hallways and rooms, divided by chutes.  The fish end up in a pound at the end, from which Rogers and a crewman haul them up in a net by hand.  It’s hard work, but also beautiful, especially when the sun breaks through the last blue remnants of night and beats a path across the water.

“I love what I do,” said Rogers, and immediately he added, “There are times I hate it.  The days when you go out and lose money, or spend money on all that gear.”  The regulations.  There used to be thousands of pound netters working the Virginia stretch of the Chesapeake, he said.  Now it’s down to about 50.

He scooped up a mess of fish in a big net with a handmade cedar handle, cried “Yup!” to signal a man at the winch to help lift the load over the rail of the Glenna Fay.  Then he pulled a release cord and the fish showered down like coins into the hold of the boat, till it was shin-deep in menhaden.   It looked like the lost age of the Chesapeake Bay watermen, barely hanging on in the twenty-first century, and it was hard to miss the contrast with the big Omega Protein boats.

But Rogers wasn’t buying the role of the artisanal fisherman, or the idea that industrial-scale fishing might be putting him out of business.  “Those people on the menhaden boats get vilified as guys with white boots and no teeth,” he said.  “But those people are me.  They’re working hard, they’re away a lot, they’re doing what they can to feed their families.”  For Reedville, that was the only reality that mattered, those 275 jobs.  Next to that, all the science and stock assessments were just a heap of meaningless talk.

Then Rogers grimaced and said something that seemed to me to apply about equally to all sides in the war for the future of menhaden:  “You’re arguing with people you can’t convince.”





2 Responses to “The Last of the Pound-Netters”

  1. I just discovered your blog after writing a review on amazon of your “Natural History of the Rich”. Then I looked up your bio to see what else you’ve written (I absolutely loved The Species Seekers too!), and saw you have a blog, and now I’ve just discovered we share a common interest in menhaden. I have an article about them here: ” Meet menhaden – before this ecologically critical fish vanishes” at

    I didn’t see much in this article about the crucial role they play in the ecosystem, perhaps that’s because I didn’t delve far enough into your past posts, which I’m about to do…. Alice Friedemann

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s