Cover Story

The Soul of Generations
by Bill Sherrod, Managing Editor

Through night’s deepest dark, just before dawn they proceed: a silent line of lights stretched out across the inky waters of Cockrell Creek, bound for the bay. It’s an eerie, almost mystical vision to behold, one ingrained in the souls of generations of Northern Neck watermen.

It’s the Reedville menhaden fleet, heading out for another day’s work. Like their forebears, the watermen on these vessels will spend the daylight hours scouting for schools of brevoortia tyrannus, the Atlantic menhaden, a herring-like fish that ends up as a part of everything from pet foods to human foods.

Menhaden fishing has been the lifeblood of Northern Neck watermen for more than a century.

The small, oily fish’s economic influence on the region has been pervasive. The Northern Neck menhaden industry, which dates to the 1800s, at one time made Reedville the wealthiest per-capita town in the United States.

In the past 30 years, however, shifting fish migration patterns and pressures from unfriendly special interests have adversely affected the industry, reducing its total employment numbers and lowering public perception, outside the Northern Neck, of its importance to Northumberland and surrounding counties.

A 1997 ruling by the Food and Drug Administration and subsequent developments in use of the fish’s oil, however, bode well for the industry and may provide the demand to keep the fleet sailing for years to come.

Reedville’s namesake, Elijah Reed, is generally considered the father of the Northern Neck’s menhaden industry. Reed came to Virginia from Maine in 1875, saw the vast schools of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay, and started commercially harvesting and processing the fish. Menhaden fishing had been established in the northern states for some time and markets already existed for the fish’s various products.
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Menhaden oil and its many
products may spell a bright
future for the menhaden
fishing industry and Virginia’s
Northern Neck.

By 1885, there were 18 small menhaden plants operating on Cockrell Creek at Reedville. Today, there is a single factory, owned by Omega Protein. Omega Protein is actually the descendent of many of the companies that came before, created through a series of mergers and acquisitions. Omega Protein today operates four plants, including two in Louisiana and one in Mississippi. The Reedville plant employs about 350 during the fishing season and about 150 during the off months, according to Steve Jones, general manager of the Reedville facility. "Omega Protein is the largest industry and the largest employer in Northumberland County," he adds.

The Process

The Reedville fleet includes 10 ships and eight spotter planes, which radio the locations of large schools of menhaden to the ships’ captains. Each ship carries two smaller purse boats. When a spotter plane finds a school of fish and the ship’s captain determines it is worth catching, the crew makes a "set" by launching the purse boats and setting the net. The boats encircle the school, playing out net behind them as they go. When the boats meet, the net is connected, then drawn toward the boats, or pursed, by power-block winches on the purse boats. Once the net has been retrieved to the side of the mother ship, the fish are on-loaded with a large vacuum-hose system into refrigerated holding tanks.

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A menhaden boat heads out in pursuit of its quarry, around the middle of the 20th century. Once a school is spotted, purse boats prepare to set their nets. The nets were pulled in by hand before the advent of power winches. The catch was then transferred from the purse net to the main boat’s hold with a round net.

Back at the dock in Cockrell Creek, the catch is off-loaded, again using a vacuum-hose system. They are then processed, or "cooked," at 200 degrees Fahrenheit. This separates the fat from the meat of the fish. The fish are then pressed and further processed in a variety of ways, depending on the end product being produced. These include fish meal, fish oil and fish solubles. Most of the solubles go back into the fish meal, which is 60 percent-plus protein. The rest of the solubles, which are very high in nitrogen content, is used in fertilizer. The meal is used in a variety of animal feeds. The oil is the most valuable portion of the fish.

Omega Protein produces three varieties of fish solubles, four varieties of fish meal and two types of fish oil — crude and refined.

"The FDA granted GRAS (generally recognized as safe) status to fully refined menhaden oil in 1997," notes Jane Crowther, refined oils sales and technology manager for Omega Protein.

Menhaden oil is high in long-chain Omega-3 fatty acids, she adds. It is used in many consumer products and for a variety of industrial and pet food applications. For years, it has been used for human consumption in Europe, and with the Food and Drug Administration’s 1997 ruling, the U.S. domestic market has been opened.

"Our movement now is away from the commodity market and into the specialty market," according to Crowther.

"Omega Pure (the trademark-brand edible oil produced by Omega Protein) is being marketed for use in pasta sauces, liquid eggs, fruit beverages — and being considered for inclusion in breads, ice cream, yogurt, beverages and dietary supplements," Crowther continues. "We’re also looking at marketing it in salad oil, for use in capsules, and we produce a powdered form that can be added to dry bakery mixes."

The oil is delicate, light and essentially tasteless. It is not suitable for use as a frying medium, Crowther adds. Its value is as an Omega-3-rich dietary food additive for its cardiovascular benefits. "We’re working with the FDA in a research effort for granting a health claim (for Omega-3 fatty acids), and the chances of this happening are very good. If and when that does happen, it will be a great boost for our business. The oil is the future focus of the industry — as a specialty for the health-conscious consumer."

Link to a Proud Heritage

It’s a future both closely linked to, and far removed from, the menhaden industry’s past. The basics of the industry — harvesting the fish, processing and marketing them — have remained the same over the course of time. The details have changed greatly. Iron kettles for cooking the fish have evolved into computerized, temperature-controlled cookers. Micro-marketing has replaced the open wagon filled with fish meal.

And the tools used in harvesting the resource — the "fishing" part of the business — have evolved from wooden sailing boats to steel diesel-powered ships with global-positioning satellite navigation.

"The great advances in machinery and technology have been the biggest change in the business in my time," says Harold "Teenie" Deihl, captain of the Reedville, one of the Omega Protein menhaden ships. Deihl has been in the business 47 years, 40 of them as a ship captain. Two of his brothers, James and Henry, are also menhaden captains, and his third brother, Irvin "Bucky" Jr., just retired as a menhaden captain. The four brothers have a combined total of 180 years in the menhaden industry. And their grandfather, Henry Deihl, and father, Irvin Sr., were menhaden captains before them. For the Deihls, menhaden fishing is a family tradition.

The Deihls have witnessed gradual but profound changes in the scope of their business. "When we started out, there were boats and plants up and down the coast," notes Teenie. "Now we hardly catch any fish up north." The fish migrations are concentrated more to the south, and after the peak season in the Chesapeake Bay, it is not unusual for the Reedville boats to venture as far south as South Carolina in pursuit of menhaden.

Besides the changed fish-movement patterns, the areas open to fishing have shrunk greatly in recent years. "Restrictions have affected the fishing as much as anything," notes Jimmy Deihl. "The fishing grounds have been cut off. For example, we can’t go into Delaware Bay, we have to stay 1.2 miles off the Jersey beach, three miles off the Maryland and Delaware beaches, and a mile and a half off North Carolina."

Fishing is allowed in Chesapeake Bay’s Virginia waters (south of Smith Point) the first Monday in May through the third Friday in November. The fleet may fish Virginia’s ocean waters until the Friday before Christmas. In the off-season, repair and maintenance work is done on the ships. "The idea is to have the boats in the best possible condition so that there won’t be any down time during the working season," notes Teenie Deihl.

And work is what these watermen do during the season. They may leave the dock at Reedville at dawn on Monday morning and not return until late in the week. The ships carry a 12- to 15-man crew and are mostly refitted World War II-vintage vessels, typically 150-170 feet in length, with twin diesel engines putting out 1,800 horsepower. With their refrigerated holds, the ships can stay out until they have harvested enough fish to fill their 450-ton carrying capacity, or until the captain is satisfied that his catch has warranted the operating expense of his boat and crew. Crew members are paid according to the ship’s catch and are guaranteed a minimum pay, but the captains aren’t paid unless they catch fish.


Jane Crowther and Steve Jones of Omega Protein with what is believed to be the largest menhaden ever taken from the Chesapeake Bay. The fish, caught September 1, 1996, weighed 31/2 lbs. and was 20 inches long.

"When you leave the dock, you don’t know if you’re going to make a dollar or not," says Donald "Bunks" Mitchell, who retired from Omega Protein after the 1999 season with more than 52 years as a waterman, including more than 34 as a menhaden captain. His three sons, Stephen, Kirk and Brett, have followed in his wake. Stephen and Kirk are both menhaden captains and Brett is working on becoming one. The three sons, who like their father sail out of Louisiana, have a combined total of 72 years on the water. In the off-season, the Mitchells live in Northumberland County in the Ophelia community.

"The fishing can be a difficult way to make a living," notes Steve Jones, the Reedville plant general manager. "It’s very physical work, and the conditions the men are working in can make it dangerous at times."

But for the Deihls, the Mitchells and others like them, fishing is a way of life and the idea of making a living otherwise is beyond comprehension. "It’s something that was born and bred in us," notes Henry Deihl. "It gets right into your bloodstream," Bucky adds with a laugh.

"In a season’s fishing, the handful of good times makes you forget about all of the bad days you have on the water," adds Kirk Mitchell.

With the expanding market for the end product that comes from the efforts of the fishermen, those good times are likely to continue — and the future of the menhaden industry on Virginia’s Northern Neck is looking brighter than it has in years.

"Sometime in the next couple of years, we expect to see a lot more of our product staying in the U.S., rather than going to Europe," notes Crowther.

"We’re excited about the prospects for the menhaden oil. It’s healthy, it’s plentiful, and the market is expanding," she concludes.

And that can only be good news for the Northern Neck.

Museum and Chanty Singers Recall Echoes of Bygone Days

Menhaden fishing is as much a tradition in Northern Neck culture as the blue crab and the Chesapeake Bay.


Wendell Haynie, president of the Reedville Fisherman’s Museum’s Board of Directors.
The industry is so much a part of the region’s heritage, in fact, that a museum was opened in its honor in 1988. The Reedville Fishermen’s Museum was located in the town’s oldest home, the Walker House, on Reedville’s Main Street. The museum was enlarged in 1995 with addition of a second building that now houses most of the exhibits.

The museum features four art shows annually, and its permanent exhibits portray the fishing industry’s history, the many products derived from menhaden, and the evolution of menhaden harvesting methods.

"If it wasn’t for the menhaden business, the museum wouldn’t be here," says Wendell Haynie, a former menhaden ship captain and president of the museum’s board of directors.

Haynie, whose name is synonymous with the menhaden fishing industry, began fishing at age 16, when he would venture seaward on his father Russell’s menhaden boat. Wendell spent 18 years fishing, including seven as captain of a menhaden ship. He began a second career as a pharmacist after finishing pharmacy school in his early 30s.

Through the museum, says Wendell, "We try to be goodwill ambassadors for the menhaden industry, as well as for crabbers and others who make their living on the water." And, he adds, the museum is a tribute to the people who built the foundation on which the industry stands today.

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William A. Hudnall and his wife
Bessie, keepers of the chanty
singing tradition.

One such person is William A. Hudnall of Ophelia. Hudnall, 85, is a retired captain in the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, a former VMRC commissioner and a former member of the Northumberland County Board of Supervisors. In the 1930s, he worked as a menhaden net hauler. In those days, there was little automation and the industry was heavily reliant on muscle power.

"There’s no comparison between the industry now and then," says Hudnall. "Back then, there were more people on the boats, and the working and sleeping conditions were harder." In the late 1950s, the Reedville menhaden boats began using power-block winches for pursing their nets. Before then, the nets were gathered in by men who would heave the cotton seines in unison to the rhythm of a cadence known as a "chanty."

Want to Learn More?

The Reedville Fishermenís Museum is open from 10:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m., seven days a week, beginning May 6. For info on the Northumberland Chanty Singers or on booking a group tour, call the museum at (804) 453-6529. The museumís Web site is www.northernneck.com/museum/.

The Men All Singing: The Story of Menhaden Fishing by John Frye, 242 pp., provides a comprehensive look at the menhaden industry, from the fish itself to the fishermen, harvest techniques and processing industries, and the tradition of chanty singing. Itís available at the Reedville Fishermenís Museum for $19.95. You can order by phone or by e-mail at bunker@crosslink.net.

"It was really something to hear," recalls Donald "Bunks" Mitchell, a retired menhaden captain who worked on the water more than 52 years. "You would make a set on a big school of fish early in the morning, call for help from another boat, and that chanting as the men pulled in the nets, in the dead calm of the morning out on the ocean, was a beautiful sound."

In the early days of the Reedville Fishermen’s Museum, around 1991, Hudnall was asked to form a chanty singing group to commemorate this part of the industry’s history. "I thought at first there was no way this could happen, because all of the people who worked during that time are old men now," says Hudnall.

But at a church deacon’s meeting, Hudnall asked that anyone who had worked the menhaden purse boats during the chanty-singing time see him after the meeting. Eight men answered the call and the group was formed. Since then, the Northern Neck Chanty Singers group has varied in size (there are currently 11 members) and has performed near and far, from Northern Neck Electric Cooperative’s annual meeting to appearances in New Jersey and New York.

Hudnall’s wife of 63 years, Bessie, tends to bookings, maintains the group’s tapes and, in general, keeps the Northern Neck Chanty Singers organized.

The group has always included only men who actually worked the purse boats in the days before power-block winches. "That’s the only way to keep it genuine," says Hudnall. "People have asked if we would pass the songs on, and we say no, because if you hadn’t actually worked pulling those nets by hand, you couldn’t really appreciate what the songs meant and the chanting wouldn’t be genuine."

 

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