A Fish for All Times – Atlantic Menhaden’s Long History in the Chesapeake



Figure 1. Mid-nineteenth century barrel excavated at the Brown’s Wharf site (18BC59).  Photograph courtesy of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab.

During the Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology’s 1987 excavation of the Brown’s Wharf site (18BC59), archaeologists uncovered an unusual find—a complete wooden barrel whose staves were held together with split tree branch bands (Figures 1 and 2).  Barrels like this one, which dated to the mid-nineteenth century, were used for storing virtually anything, including grain, salted meat, cider, whale oil and dried and pickled fish.  And indeed, removing the soil filling the interior of this barrel, revealed – among other items like a metal funnel, a shoe, rope and a broken champagne bottle—sixty menhaden (Figure 3), whose bodies had been preserved in a tarry substance (Stevens 1989).

The Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) is a native North American schooling fish in the herring family, ranging from Nova Scotia to Florida (Figure 4).  Small and oily, menhaden are not considered an appetizing meal for humans, but are prey for larger fish like weakfish, striped bass and bluefish. Menhaden’s primary food source is phytoplankton.

Figure 2. Unidentified archaeologist excavating the Brown’s Wharf barrel. Photo courtesy of the Maryland Archaeological Conservation Lab.

Menhaden have had a long and important history for the Chesapeake Bay region. Although long used by Native Americans as fertilizer, perhaps the earliest written record of menhaden was penned by Captain John Smith, who described them as “lying so thick with their heads above the water, as for want of nets (our barge driving amongst them) we attempted to catch them with a frying pan.” (Smith 1624).  Although not favored as a human food, menhaden have been used in paint, as a bait fish, for fertilizer, as animal feed, in human dietary supplements and as lamp oil (Chesapeake Bay Foundation 2019).  Large numbers of processing plants sprang up along the Atlantic coast for converting menhaden into these valuable products.

Figure 3: BCUA curator Louis Akerson and archaeologist Scott Simmons examining the contents of the barrel. Reprinted from The Evening Sun, Perry E. Thorsvik.

Almost four hundred years later, a time-traveling John Smith would be disheartened at the menhaden population in the Chesapeake Bay.  Once menhaden oil began to replace whale oil for lighting and as an industrial lubricant in the late nineteenth century, menhaden populations began to decline (Franklin 2008; Chesapeake Bay Foundation 2019). These numbers continued to plummet as overharvesting went on throughout the twentieth century, with the menhaden fishery being the largest in the Atlantic.

Some conservationists refer to menhaden as “the most important fish in the sea”, since they form a vital part of the marine food web (Franklin 2008).  With menhaden numbers depleted, populations of phytoplankton, “a major cause of algae blooms and brown tides” (Carini 2017), explode, to the detriment of the coastal waters.  Studies by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) have shown the striped bass population suffering malnutrition because of the reduced menhaden population (Chesapeake Bay Foundation 2019).

Figure 4. The Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus). http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Brevoortia_tyrannus1.jpg, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1674101

In an attempt to curb population reduction, the ASMFC voted in 2012 to cap the harvest of menhaden at 20 percent less than the previous three year’s catch (Carini 2017).  A population study completed in 2017 showed that menhaden numbers are increasing, but still not at levels considered healthy for the ecology of the Atlantic coastal ecosystem (Chesapeake Bay Foundation 2019; Carini 2017). Since the Chesapeake Bay is the source of almost 87% of the menhaden harvested in the Atlantic (with Virginia fisherman allocated over 85% of the harvest), the population recovery has not been as successful in the Bay (Dunn 2017).  Although small in size, menhaden loom large in the overall health of the Chesapeake Bay’s ecosystem and conservation measures need to continue.

References

Carini, Frank.  2017.  Menhaden:  The Most Important Fish at the Moment.  EcoRI News.  Website site accessed July 30, 2019 at https://www.ecori.org/aquaculture/2017/11/10/menhaden-the-most-important-fish-that-the-moment.

Chesapeake Bay Foundation.  2019.  Atlantic Menhaden; the Chesapeake’s Unsung Hero.  Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Website accessed July 30, 2019 at https://www.cbf.org/about-the-bay/more-than-just-the-bay/chesapeake-wildlife/menhaden/.

Dunn, Joel.  2017.  Bay’s History Depended on Menhaden; Its Future Will as Well.  The Bay Journal.  Website accessed July 30, 2019 at https://www.bayjournal.com/article/bays_history_depended_on_menhaden_its_future_will_as_well.

Franklin, H. Bruce.  2008. The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America.  Island Press, Washington, D. C.

Smith, Captain John.  1624. The Generall Historie of Virginia, New England & the Summer Isles. I.D and I. H. for Michael Sparkes, London.  Electronic version available at https://docsouth.unc.edu/southlit/smith/smith.html.

Stevens, Kristen L.  1989.  An Investigation of the Archaeological Resources Associated with the Brown’s Wharf Site (18BC59) on Thames Street, Baltimore, Maryland.  Baltimore Center for Urban Archaeology Research Series No. 28.  On file at MHT.

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