Mackerel gets short shrift in the annals of New England history. Overshadowed by the cod, the lobster, even the clam, the mackerel actually contributed significantly to New England’s prosperity. (Until it didn’t.)
Scomber Scombrus is the mackerel that made at least some New Englanders rich. People call it the Atlantic mackerel, Boston mackerel, Norwegian Mackerel or Scottish mackerel after the places where a lot of it gets caught. The Boston fish winters in deep water offshore around Virginia, then migrates north in spring and summer. It likes company, traveling in huge schools sometimes 20 miles long.
The word “mackerel” seems to strike people as either nasty or funny. “Mackerel snapper” was an insult aimed at poor Catholic immigrants from Europe. “Mackerel” used to refer to a prostitute or pimp. “Holy Mackerel” has served as a catchphrase for radio comics and Chicago Cubs’ broadcasters, though Batman’s Robin tended to use “Holy” with other nouns, like “Crimson Skies of Death.”
A 20th century Provincetown historian, George Bryant, liked to talk about the fish because he felt people ignored its importance.
“When you look at the 19th century homes and institutions … you have to think of mackerel,” Bryant told the Wellfleet Historical Society in a speech in 2001.
During the 1850s, mackerel fishing employed more Cape Codders and brought in more money than any other kind of piscatorial enterprise. “Mackerel, more than codfishing or whaling, created what was probably the most prosperous era in Cape Cod history,” wrote Seth Rolbein for the Cape Cod Fishermen’s Alliance.
Here are seven other fun facts about the mackerel.
1. It Stinks to High Heaven
Mackerel have a unique tendency to spoil quickly. As a result, the adjective “stinking” appears before the noun “mackerel” more often than before any other fish in English literature, according to The Cambridge Economic History of Europe.
Falstaff in Shakespeare’s Henry IV tells Prince Hal, “You may buy land now as cheap as stinking mackerel.” In America, U.S. Sen. John Randolph described Secretary of State Edward Livingston as utterly corrupt. “He shines and stinks like rotten mackerel by moonlight,” he wrote. You get the picture.
2. A Holy Expletive
The expression “Holy Mackerel” dates to at least 1803, the first known written record of it. Because mackerel deteriorates quickly, it had to be sold on the day it was caught — at least before refrigeration. So some English towns let fishmongers sell mackerel on Sunday. No other fish enjoyed that privilege; thus it obtained its sanctified status.
Eventually, the English did figure out how to salt, can and refrigerate the fish.
The phrase got even more popular in the 1920s as a catchphrase with the Amos ‘n Andy radio show.
3. Mackerel Changed Commercial Fishing in 1816
The Year Without a Summer, 1816, was also known as The Mackerel Year.
Six inches of snow fell in June and every month of the year had a hard frost. Temperatures dropped to as low as 40 degrees in July and August as far south as Connecticut.
The Year Without a Summer had a big impact on New England. Crop failures caused hoarding and big price increases for food. People went hungry. Farmers gave up trying to make a living in New England and started heading west. Politicians who ignored the melancholy plight of their constituents found themselves out of office.
Alewife numbers fell because of the cold weather along the Atlantic coast. Alewives, the first to arrive in spring, fed people and livestock in those lean months. Without that sustenance, fishermen sailed to mackerel fisheries farther away — something they hadn’t done.
Even after New England warmed up in 1817, fishermen continued to fish offshore. And for decades, mackerel remained an important food and export product.
4. The Jig Brought Death to Millions of Mackerel
Around 1815, a Cape Ann fisherman named Abraham Lurvey invented the jig. It’s simply a hook with a shiny piece of metal at the top of it. The shiny metal attracts mackerel without bait, and it lets a fisherman catch a lot more fish since he doesn’t have to spend time baiting the hook. Fishermen didn’t even need to handle the fish; they could simply flick it off the hook and throw the jig back in the water.
By 1820, word of the efficient new technique spread. At the same time, huge schools of mackerel began to show up off the New England coast. During the 1820s, hundreds of men and boys starting going after the stinky fish. Mackerel boats got bigger and jigs got slimmer. Mackerel fishing grew into a serious commercial venture, with packing houses in Hingham, Gloucester, Boston and all over the New England coast.
Over the next 15 years, mackerel fishing grew exponentially. In 1816, New England fishermen caught less than 8 million pounds. In 1831, they landed 175 million pounds.
5. Fickle, Then Just Overfished
Mackerel are notoriously fickle. Some years they show, some years they don’t. Five years after that huge haul in 1831, the catch fell by half.
Then by 1850 landings had come back in a big way, helped by the innovation of purse seining. To purse seine, men in two small boats encircle a school of fish with a net, close it and haul them in.
Purse seines were huge. In the 1850s they were as long as 800 feet and as deep as 100 feet.
in 1851, about a thousand men fished on 940 vessels off the New England coast. Then, over the next few decades, fishing got a lot more efficient. Boats got bigger and purse seines got enormous. By the 1870s, the biggest seines measured 1,350 long and 150 feet deep.
The season also got longer as boats started taking early spring trips. Then in 1882, the first steamer left Tiverton , R.I., in search of mackerel. It wasn’t the only one.
Fishermen began to worry about overfishing. They tried to pressure Congress to limit the mackerel season. In 1884, the U.S. mackerel catch broke its own record, exceeding 180 million pounds. Still Congress dithered.
In 1885, the mackerel fishery collapsed. “The business is virtually ruined,” reported Maine’s Bureau of Industrial and Labor Statistics in 1887. Men had fished off of North Haven for eight months “and had not even wet their seines,” the Bureau reported. It blamed large seining operations.
The poor landings in 1885 and disastrous landings in 1886 finally forced Congress to act. The first federal fishing law banned spring fishing starting in 1887.
6. Caused the Worst Fishing Disaster Ever
In 1841, a fleet of mackerel fishermen from Truro got caught in a fierce gale while fishing off Georges Bank. Only two of nine vessels made it home.
The 57 men and boys in the seven other fishing vessels had no such luck. All died at sea, and only a few of their bodies recovered.
All 57 lived within two miles of each other. They were related to nearly everyone in town. Eight were Snows and eight were Paines. And three were boys not yet 13 years old.
During one of his trips to Cape Cod, Henry David Thoreau recalled asking a man in Truro, “Who lives in that house?” The man then replied: “Three widows.”
The town, with a population around 2,000, had 105 widows. Young women became reluctant to marry fishermen.
An obelisk in Truro’s Congregational Church yard commemorates the 57 October gale victims:
Then shall the dust return to the
earth as it was and the spirit shall
return unto God who gave it.
Man goeth to his long home and the
mourners go about the street.
7. Overshadowed by the Sacred Cod
There is a holy mackerel in the Massachusetts Statehouse, less famous than the Sacred Cod, which dangles from a balcony in the House of Representatives.
The cod is viewed as essential to the welfare of the early commonwealth and the foundation of many New England fortunes. The mackerel , not so much.
In the spring of 1933, the Sacred Cod made national news when Harvard pranksters stole the 4’11”-long wooden fish. No one has bothered to try to spirit away the Holy Mackerel in the Senate chamber. It’s a brass sculpture, part of the chandelier that illuminates (one hopes) the deliberations underneath. No one so far has tried to steal it.
With thanks to W. Jeffrey Bolster, The Mortal Sea.
Images: Fine fish in the basement at Takashimaya Department Store – Kyoto, Japan, by Donna Cleveland via Flickr, CC By 2.0.
Holy Mackerel: By Montanabw – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=83792746. Image: First Congregational Parish of Truro By Judy Moehle – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35518277. Purse seining Parks, Gordon, photographer. On board the fishing boat Alden, out of Gloucester, Massachusetts. Fishermen pulling in their net, in which they hope to have trapped a school of mackerel. The big boat stands by ready to go alongside and receive the catch on her decks. United States Essex County Massachusetts Gloucester, 1943. June. Photograph. https://www.loc.gov/item/2017856605/. Sacred cod By Liberma – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=64703916.