This oily little fish has many names: menhaden, herring, bunker, alewife and more. You won't see it on restaurant menus, and the folks who know what it smells like when it is "cooking" are the residents of Reedville, Va., or boaters downwind of the Omega Protein plant. The Houston-based company is the world's largest producer of omega-3 fish oil and North America's largest manufacturer of fishmeal.
It's a really big business, with a really big odor. One night, when we were anchored out, just north of that plant in a cozy little creek, the wind direction shifted. "Egad, what is that horrendous smell?" The Reedville residents say it is the "smell of money." I'm glad they can tolerate it; we, however, pulled up anchor and got away from the overwhelming aroma.
The story is that menhaden were the fish the Native Americans taught the Pilgrims to plant in the hole with corn. So it's appropriate this Thanksgiving season to thank the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission for voting to reduce the menhaden harvest by 25 percent of what was caught last year. Since Virginia had no limit on how much menhaden could be taken out of the Chesapeake Bay, that's good news for the rockfish population. They, along with bluefish, tuna, cod and haddock, like to see menhaden on their menu! And they should see about 60,000 more metric tons of their favorite meal.
We have watched from our small sailboat as a fleet of menhaden fishing boats encircled large schools of these fish in the Chesapeake Bay, with help from spotter planes. It reminded me of shooting fish in a barrel.
Estimates are that the menhaden population has dropped to about 10 percent of its Pilgrim era numbers. Some may say that government makes too many regulations, but time proves that most companies will not voluntarily reduce their fishing takes.