A photo a day from Oriental, NC, the surrounding Pamlico County area, and nearby rivers, creeks, bays and other waterways of coastal North Carolina.

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Saturday, August 30, 2008

8.29- Masses of Menhaden

Menhaden (a type of fish) schooling next to the Hodges Street causeway over Raccoon Creek (next to Town Dock).

The menhaden invasion continues... Untold millions of menhaden minnows have thronged area creeks this summer, thriving in their estuaries.

The enormous schools of menhaden minnows create "boiling" effects along creek shores and docks. Especially on calm days, when the wind is not creating waves, the water everywhere seems to shimmer as the never-ending schools of tightly packed menhaden create surface turbulence.

I did take a video of the menhaden, since the still picture does not quite capture their frenetic nature:

All I Know About Menhaden (at least I think it's interesting):

Local crabbers (recreational and commercial) and recreational fishers use menhaden for bait. It is extremely easy to catch many hundreds of the 1 to 2 inch minnows simply by tossing a cast net from the shore.

People don't eat menhaden in their natural fish form, but commercial menhaden fisheries produce commercially successful proteins and oils extracted from the fish, as I learned last summer when I visited Reedville, Virginia.

Reedville, VA is home to the only menhaden fishing fleet on the Atlantic Ocean, and to a large processing plant that converts about 200,000 Tons of menhaden (over 500 Million individuals) a year into fishmeal and oil for use in a wide variety of products.

Like Oriental, Reedville is a small town dominated by a large commercial fishing fleet. Unlike the Oriental fleet, which concentrates on shrimping and some scalloping, the Reedville fleet is 100% dedicated to menhaden, which it harvests in enormous quantities.

While there, I spent a couple of hours at the Reedville Fisherman's Museum, which is essentially a propaganda outlet for the commercial menhaden industry (though they do also have an impressive floating collection of wooden boats, including one of about 30 surviving Chesapeake Bay "Skipjack" sailing oyster boats, which the museum continues to operate for charters and tours... all in all, well worth visiting.)

When you enter the museum, the docent immediately shunts you into a small room to watch a ten minute video about commercial menhaden fishing (the museum has now posted the video on YouTube, so I have embedded it below in this post)

Once properly indoctrinated, you are allowed wander the halls of the museum, which feature a pretty amazing photographic history of the industry in action, as well as scale models depicting key technological developments that have led to today's frighteningly large catches of the fish.

The modern menhaden fleet consists of about 10 "steamer" ships, each of which carries two smaller "purse-seine boats"...

When one of the fleet's associated airplanes spots one of the gigantic menhaden schools from the air, the steamer heads that way and launches the purse seine boats.

The purse seine boats each take one end of a 1500-foot purse seine net and encircle a portion of the school then close the bottom of the net, trapping the fish... The area within the net may only be a tiny piece of the overall school, but will result in a catch of up to 300,000 menhaden.

The fish are then pumped out of the nets by the steamers (using giant vacuum tubes that are lowered into the trapped mass.) When their holds are filled, the purse seine boats are brought back aboard and the steamers head back to the processing plant at Reedville.

At the plant, the fish is "cooked" and pressed, separating it into "liquor" (water and oil) and "cake" (solid fish meal). If you are ever in Reedville, you will immediately know if the plant is cooking, as an odor-you-would-not-believe pervades the air downwind of the plant... make sure to anchor or tie up on the windward side of the stacks! (Crazy Crab Restaurant and Marina is recommended, so long as the wind is not out of the south)

The dry meal is used, among other things, as a protein for livestock and pet foods. (take a deep whiff of a can of fish food flakes, or while in the cat food aisle at Pet Smart and you will have a small clue as to the odor that emanates from the processing plant)

The oil is mostly exported to Europe for use as cooking oil/margarine/shortening for human foods (as the Reedville Fisherman's Museum film points out, if you've ever been to France and enjoyed their croissants, likely cooked with menhaden oil), but because the American market has so far not embraced menhaden as a food oil it is instead used here for industrial products like paint and cosmetics.

If you only watch the Reedville Museum's film (embedded below) you might think, as the narrator asserts, that it is indeed:

"the perfect commercial fish... fishermen don't value them except as bait [not good eating, plus they are toothless phytoplankton eaters not catchable with hook and line so sports fishers don't care about them]... they are plentiful, self-renewing, usable in a variety of ways and catchable in large quantities without accidentally killing other valuable fish that people want to eat or catch for sport."

(Video from the Reedville Fisherman's Museum, Reedville, VA)

Some conservationists and sports fishers, however, complain that because menhaden are a significant link between plankton and larger predatory marine and avian life, the large-scale removal of their protein from the ecosystem can only have damaging effects on predator populations such as striped bass, bluefish, mackerel, flounder, tuna, drum , sharks, egrets, ospreys, seagulls, northern gannets, pelicans, herons, etc... Some allege that commercial menhaden fishing has even led or contributed to an alarming increase in appearances of lesion-causing mycobacteriosis and Pfiesteria among menhaden predators such as bass and rockfish.

The U.S. Dept. of Commerce's National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration projects that this year the 10 steamers of the Reedville-based Atlantic menhaden fleet will bring in close to 200,000 Tons of menhaden! (see NOAA report)

According to NOAA, the combined Gulf and Atlantic menhaden fleets landed 454,000 metric tons (1.39 BILLION pounds) of the fish last year.

I won't bother linking to the multitude of sources discussing the debate over whether menhaden are being over-fished to the detriment of other species (and whether that is even possible)... if you are interested, you can google and find tons of discussion on the subject, most of which appears in the form of defensive discussions from the commercial fishing interests.

I found another menhaden fishing video on YouTube, very different from the pre-packaged corporate promo like the video from the Reedville museum... This vedeo was apparently made by one or more commercial menhaden fishermen (accompanied by Dire Straits' "Sultans of Swing")... Oddly, these guys are fishing off Cape May, NJ, and the boats are not the large "steamers" of the Reedville fleet... not sure where they are from, but it looks like they use the two trawlers for the purse-seine operation... one of the trawlers carries a smaller boat (the loading-the-boat scene is my favorite part), but this is not like the huge Reedville steamers each carrying two 20 foot steel-hulled purse-seine boats.

These guys clearly enjoyed making the video for fun. It's also clear from the video that these guys work hard catching bunk/pogies/menhaden, and that they love being fishermen working the waters. Check it out:"bunker fishing cape may (atlantic menhaden)" video.


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