Sometime around 1850, an elderly lady from Blue Hill, Maine, set off the menhaden wars that would roil the Maine coast for 30 years.
Like many coastal Mainers, Mrs. John Bartlett and her family scraped out a living by fishing and farming. One day she boiled a kettle of menhaden to make some food for her chickens. But then she skimmed the oil that rose to the top, put it in a jar and took it to Boston.
Mrs. John Bartlett then walked into a shop owned by an oil dealer, Eben. B. Phillips. She told him about the vast schools of menhaden, also known as pogies, that swarmed along Maine’s coast. He said he’d pay her $11 for every barrel of menhaden she brought him, and he gave her a seine net.
Pretty soon Mrs. Bartlett’s husband and sons were busy catching menhaden. In their second year of operation, they sold Phillips 100 barrels, earning more than five times what an average Maine fisherman made in a year.
By 1861, menhaden had grown into the largest fishery in the United States, with a fleet of 200 vessels, 4,000 fishermen and 30 factories.
Mrs. Bartlett’s jar of fish oil established the first industrial fishery — which collapsed within 30 years.
The menhaden, commonly known as pogy or mossbunker, is a fatty, smelly, inedible fish. Generally viewed with contempt, the fish for centuries was used for bait, fertilizer and animal feed.
Around the time Mrs. Bartlett took her jar of oil to Boston, the whaling industry had started its long decline. Menhaden oil began to replace whale oil for dressing leather, for lamp oil and for making soap, rope and paint.
Pogies seemed inexhaustible. One Newport, R.I., sea captain reported seeing a school of menhaden off Portland two miles wide and 40 miles long. Ichthyologist G. Brown Goode said he heard a story that 1.3 million menhaden were caught in a single haul in New Haven Harbor – and he believed it.
Very little goes unnoticed in a small coastal town like Blue Hill. Mrs. Bartlett’s neighbors saw the money they could make in the menhaden oil business. Fishermen started going after pogies in Hancock and Waldo counties in Maine.
Until about 1860 it remained a cottage industry. Small sloops, schooners and dories caught menhaden with gillnets and seines. The fishermen then took their catch ashore to try works, large kettles on outdoor hearths. After just 30 minutes of boiling, the oil was poured into locally made barrels and shipped off on coasting schooners.
Some people began to wonder if they weren’t leaving too much oil in the fish before getting rid of them. So Phillips, the Boston oil dealer, outfitted 50 families in Maine with mechanical screw presses to crank out even more menhaden oil. The presses, along with steam processing, transformed the fish oil business from a cottage industry into a leading coastal industry.
Pogy mania then spread along the northeast coast – on Cape Cod, along Boston’s South Shore, in Rhode Island, Long Island and Connecticut.
The farmer’s fish was becoming an industrial commodity. Fish oil factories were springing up all along the Maine coast, replacing the primitive kettles and hearths on the shore.
Within five years, fishermen in Maine began to see the effects of overfishing. Food fish like cod, mackerel and haddock feed on menhaden. Pogy mania, they believed, was causing the fish stocks to decline. Hundreds of Mainers who fished with hook and line began to protest the menhaden slaughter. They blamed the seiners for harvesting an unsustainable amount of pogies.
Fishermen from Boothbay, Surry, Ellsworth and Sedgwick sent petitions to the Legislature demanding an end to seine fishing. In 1855, lawmakers met them partway, banning the practice in bays, inlets and harbors.
The First of the Menhaden Wars
Bigger and bigger fish oil factories went up all along the New England coast. In 1864, a commercial fish oil operation started in Bristol, R.I. it cost $12,000, with buildings, boilers, engine, pipes, wharf, hydraulic press and cooking tanks. Rhode Island, along with New York, would dominate the fish oil business for the next decade.
By 1870 more than 90 menhaden reduction plants lined the coast from Maine to North Carolina.
But Maine attracted fishermen from all over coastal New England because it had the best menhaden. Pogies travel north to the Gulf of Maine, and by the time they arrive they’ve gotten good and fat feeding on the plankton along the way.
The sight of out-of-staters gathering up huge catches of menhaden in enormous nets incensed the Maine fishermen. Up and down the coast, they demanded the Legislature do something. Lawmakers responded, passing a bill in 1865 forbidding out-of-state fishermen from seining in state waters up to three miles out. Violators would get fined heavily and forfeit their boats and gear. The law exempted small nets, though, and coastal residents could still seine in their own town waters.
But the industrialists who harvested and processed menhaden oil on a large scale organized itself into the Association of the Menhaden Oil and Guano Manufacturers of Maine, the so-called Menhaden Trust. It used its wealth and growing power to persuade the Maine Legislature in 1866 to loosen some of the new restrictions on menhaden seining. The new law let county commissioners give permits to seine for menhaden – which mean out-of-staters could once again harvest Maine fish in state waters.
The change outraged Maine fishermen, convinced the industrial operators would wipe out the menhaden and with it, the cod, haddock and mackerel that fed on them. They complained the fish oil factories had diminished their catch by a third.
Petitioners from Brunswick complained. “The interests of the many demand protection from the monopoly of the few wealthy capitalists, who by this means may appropriate the whole fishing privilege upon the coast,” they argued.
But the hundreds of people fishing for the Menhaden Trust and working in their factories supported the loosened restrictions.
Massachusetts Menhaden Wars
By 1865, fishermen in Massachusetts divided over the same issue that had riled Maine fishermen. The commonwealth had banned purse seines, which could encircle and harvest entire schools of fish.
Line-and-hook fishermen opposed seining for pogies because they feared it would destroy the cod and mackerel fisheries. Others wanted to overturn the ban on purse seining. They argued that pogies were an inexhaustible resource that could bring wealth to coastal communities.
Lawmakers turned to the Fisheries Committee to resolve the dispute. The solution they came up with: They told the line-and-hook fishermen they could seine for pogies themselves in their own towns without getting a license.
The Crash of 1879
Until 1870, wind had powered all the vessels fishing for menhaden. But in 1870, the Church brothers, Rhode Island’s pogie barons, launched the first menhaden steamer called Seven Brothers.
In 1873, the first menhaden steamer appeared in Maine waters. By the middle of the 1870s, the fish oil business had moved to Maine from Rhode Island and New York. In 1875, historian Samuel Adams Drake predicted the extinction of the menhaden.
No longer did a fleet of small sailboats and dories fish for pogies using small seine nets. Instead, the Menhaden Trust ran the show. They had 48 steamers and 13 sailing vessels, employing 727 fishermen on their vessels and 300 men in their factories.
Maine’s largest factory could process 4,000 barrels of pogy oil a day, up from 500 a day just a few years earlier.
By then no one could ignore the depletion of the cod and mackerel stocks. Menhaden disappeared from the waters off Maine’s easternmost towns, Jonesport and Lubec.
In 1879, Maine fishermen told the U.S. Fish Commission that menhaden no longer schooled near shore anymore as they had for decades. Maine lawmakers again responded by banning seining in inland waters.
It was too late.
No More Pogies
The menhaden fishery crashed. In Maine, menhaden landings fell from a million pounds of menhaden landings in 1878 to 20,000 in 1879. Factories sat idle. Hook fishermen had no bait and no income. Steamers with purse seines had cleaned the pogies out of the water. There would be no more pogies in Maine for six years.
Alarm spread throughout New England over the collapse of the fisheries.
Bills were introduced in Congress to protect the menhaden, for example, by requiring larger holes in seine nets and banning pogy fishing within two miles of the coast. But the Menhaden Trust, led by Rhode Island fish processers, killed any serious effort to save the fishery.
In 1880, ichthyologist G. Brown Goode described the menhaden decline: “More than 40 steamers went out into the Gulf of Maine in July,” he wrote. “To return in a few weeks without wetting their nets.”
But Goode, in the thrall of the Menhaden Trust, remained in denial about the cause of the fishery collapse.
“After reciting numerous theories on the subject, and showing their improbability, the speaker gave it as his opinion that they were kept away by the decrease in the temperature of the water, caused probably by a deflection of the polar currents. A vote of thanks was unanimously given to Prof. Goode for his able and instructive treatise.” According to the New York Times on Jan. 15, 1880.
Gone for Good
Goode was wrong. Industrial overfishing killed the menhaden fishery in New England.
“The fish have not been encountered in abundance in the coastal waters in that area since,” wrote Fred C. June for the U.S. Bureau of Commercial Fisheries in 1961.
Instead, they moved south.
Elijah Reed, a menhaden fisherman from Maine, grew frustrated with the menhaden wars and went south to find more abundant fishing grounds. In 1867 he put down roots by the Chesapeake Bay, where fishermen hadn’t started going after menhaden. He built a fish oil factory on Cockrell’s Creek. The town that grew up around menhaden fishing and processing named itself Reedville, after Elijah Reed.
By 1900, the menhaden industry was centered in New Jersey and Virginia. It never returned to New England.