The Soul of Generations by Bill Sherrod, Managing Editor
Through nights 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. Its an eerie, almost mystical vision to behold, one ingrained in
the souls of generations of Northern Neck watermen.
Its the Reedville menhaden
fleet, heading out for another days 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 fishs 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 fishs oil, however, bode well for the industry
and may provide the demand to keep the fleet sailing for years to come.
namesake, Elijah Reed, is generally considered the father of the Northern Necks
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 fishs various products.
Menhaden oil and its many
products may spell a bright
future for the menhaden
fishing industry and Virginias
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 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 ships 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.
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 boats 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
Administrations 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. "Were 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. "Were 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
Link to a Proud Heritage
Its a future both closely linked to, and far removed from, the menhaden
industrys 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
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
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 cant 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
Fishing is allowed in Chesapeake Bays Virginia waters (south of Smith Point) the
first Monday in May through the third Friday in November. The fleet may fish
Virginias 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 wont 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 ships catch and are guaranteed a minimum pay, but the captains arent 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 dont know if youre 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
"The fishing can be a difficult way to make a
living," notes Steve Jones, the Reedville plant general manager. "Its very
physical work, and the conditions the men are working in can make it dangerous at
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. "Its
something that was born and bred in us," notes Henry Deihl. "It gets right into
your bloodstream," Bucky adds with a laugh.
"In a seasons 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 Virginias Northern Neck is looking brighter than it has in
"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.
"Were excited about the prospects for the menhaden oil. Its healthy,
its 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
fishing is as much a tradition in Northern Neck culture as the blue crab and the
Wendell Haynie, president of the Reedville
Fishermans Museums Board of Directors.
The industry is so much a part of the regions heritage,
in fact, that a museum was opened in its honor in 1988. The Reedville Fishermens
Museum was located in the towns oldest home, the Walker House, on Reedvilles
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 industrys history, the many products derived
from menhaden, and the evolution of menhaden harvesting methods.
"If it wasnt for the menhaden business, the museum wouldnt be
here," says Wendell Haynie, a former menhaden ship captain and president of the
museums 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 Russells
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
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.
William A. Hudnall and his wife
Bessie, keepers of the chanty
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.
"Theres no comparison between the industry now and then," says
"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
Want to Learn More?
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 firstname.lastname@example.org.
"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 Fishermens Museum, around 1991, Hudnall was
asked to form a chanty singing group to commemorate this part of the industrys
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 deacons 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 Cooperatives annual meeting
to appearances in New Jersey and New York.
Hudnalls wife of 63 years, Bessie, tends to bookings, maintains the
groups 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. "Thats 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 hadnt actually worked pulling those nets by hand, you couldnt really
appreciate what the songs meant and the chanting wouldnt be genuine."