Menhaden - who has heard of them? We hadn't!

Phil & Nikki Hoskins
Sat 31 Oct 2009 17:26
37:50.41N, 76:16.45W
Our first stop after Solomons Island was Reedville, a place we had by-passed on the way north earlier in the year. In fact a lot of cruisers by-pass Reedville whichever direction they are heading. Why? Because of the fish processing factory that 'guards' the entrance to the pretty locality of Cockrell Creek. The smell emanating from this processing plant could bring down a buffalo, not that buffalos are thick on the ground in these parts.
As we entered the Great Wicomico River, which is on Virginia's northern neck, we could see the pall of steam rising from the one remaining plant which is all that's left from what was a massive industry in the past. This remaining factory looks like some Heath Robinson invention taken to extremes, with cylinders, pipes and chimneys dotted over the area all seemingly joined up somehow. Alongside the dock were 9 or 10 100' long fishing vessels all looking in urgent need of some new paint. As we entered the creek, having been greeted by some very large dolphins (who obviously love the smell) we came into direct downwind line with the stream of tainted air wafting from the factory. In the surrounding area could be seen remnants of other factories, all now in ruins.
Our escort arrives to guide us into the Great Wicomico river                                     Approaching the fish factory
The glory days are behind this rotting relic of the past                                          .....which is moored alongside one of the now derelict processing plants
These don't look in much better condition                                                             ...... but they are still plying their trade                
So what exactly are menhaden we wondered. We thought we knew most of the major fish species but these were new to us. As always the guide books and internet prove to be a major source of information about these small silvery swimmers and their place in the food chain although menhaden are never directly eaten by humans - they are far too oily, boney and smelly, even before processing begins! But they are found in numbers too large to count in this part of the bay. A shoal can be the size of a football pitch and reach to a 100' depth. That's a lot of fish. The fishing fleet rely on the support of a spotter plane flying over the area which reports on the position of any large menhaden shoals. The fleet then heads at full speed to the shoal and releases smaller 40' long skiffs with purse seine nets that surround the shoals, pulling the nets round to gather up the maximum number of fish,  which are then literally sucked into the holds of the parent vessel by giant vacuum pipes. Then its back to the factory to offload the catch which is processed into all manner of useful products - chicken feed, fish food and even linoleum. Taking human intervention apart, menhaden form a valuable stage in the food chain providing huge pickings for many of the voracious surface feeders, including gulls, ospreys, pelicans etc. And of course waiting for all the scraps to float down into the depths are the crabs. So in a way, whilst humans don't eat the menhaden directly, we do indirectly via the food chain we are all part of. (Vegetarians apart!).
Having survived the overwhelming assault on our noses we anchored for the night in the tranquillity of a pretty creek surrounded by beautiful houses. Hard to believe that such opulent property exists within half mile of one of the smelliest factories imaginable. We did wonder if the richer residents had property at each end of the creek and lived in the upwind house dependant on prevailing wind direction to breath good fresh air.
Peace, tranquillity - with no smell                                                                                   .....Reedville
Reedville was a one night stop as the forecast was fine to continue southwards the following morning. But there is much to see here and we will brave the plant's output next summer for a better look at the town and it's factory. Besides there is a museum and model railway to be viewed.
Leaving the following morning we motored as quickly as possible out of the creek and out towards the bay, where we were faced with the returning fleet, motoring at full speed back to the factory. This had the effect of causing standing waves that pitched us up and down like laundry in a washing machine. Once all nine ships had raced past, the sea settled a little as we sailed sedately off in the direction of Deltaville, our next stop.
The returning fleet                                                                                           one of the aluminium 'purse seiner' skiffs is winched onboard aft