BULLETIN OF THE UNITED STATES FISH COMMISSION. 1881
An opinion regarding the influence upon the coast fisheries of the steamers used in the Menhaden Fishery.
I am engaged in the menhaden fishery, having been master of a steamer in that business for six years past and before that for four years in a sail vessel.
In view of the fact that a bill is pending before the New Jersey legislature to stop the use of steamers for catching menhaden off the coast of that State, will you plesae state your views as to the relative extent of the injury, if any, done to the fisheries for edible fish by the operations of the menhaden fishermen as compared with the influence of other causes, including the destructon of menhaden by their natural enemies?
1. Do we catch edible fish ourselves with our set-nets?
We do not find them with the menhaden, except as thjey are chasing and worrying the menhaden. We never look for nor set for anything else but menhaden, and, take the season through, we do not catch enough to supply our table on board the steamer.
There was one instance that you have heard of, but it was exceptional and was the only one that ever happened in my experience. In June last, while on my steamer, the J.W. Hawkins, off Rockaway, I set for what I supposed to be a school of menhaden. When I had surround them them I thought I discovered they were bluefish, and that my seine was gone (for bluefish eat a seine, and such a school would have destroyed it quickly), but I could not get away from them, and was glad to find out they were weakfish. I took about twenty tons of them and carried them at once to Fulton Market, New York, and sold them for edible fish. At the same time, two other steamers made hauls of the same and sold theirs in the same way.
I have been engaged in menhaden fishing for thirteen years and for six years have been master of a steamer in that business, and in my judgement, during that time, not one fish of one thousand of those which have been rendered into fertilizer was an edible fish, unless the menhaden theselves are called such.
2. Assuming that menhaden are the chief food of the bluefish, and in part of the weakfish, bonito, cod, and bass, do our steamers render these edible fish scarce by driving off or catching up the menhaden? That is a question which everyone engaged in the business is interested in asking.
I am entirely satisfied with the position take by Professors Baird, Huxley, Goode, and others, that all the menhaden that man has ever caught in any one year have been but as a drop in the bucket compared to those which are annually destroyed by the bluefish and sharks, and their other natural enemies.
Some years, when with a sail-gear, I have found less fish than in other years, but since I have been in a steamer, my cruising has been more extended and I can't say that I have seen less fish in any one year than in another. During the season of 1881 I cruised from Cape Henlopen to Montauk Point, and in my judgement as many fish came on to coast in the spring as I ever saw in a spring before, and although the fish were in different localities from what they sometimes are, I think I saw as many menhaden that season as ever before.
3. Does the cruising of our steamers drive the menhaden from any part of the coast? I believe it does not.
Although it is true that menhaden do oftentimes seem to be shy, and do not show up as well as at others, and although you may by rowing ahead of or around a small school cause them to sink below the surface, and that they will then change their position before showing up again, and although when you make a stab at one side of a school it may turn just far enough to clear your seine and then pursue its course; yet it is my opinion, and so far as I know it is the universal opinion of fishermen, that when a large body of fish is coming upon the coast, or is located upon the coast, or at sea, there is no such thing as stopping them or varying their course by nets or boats or steamers or by any other means that we know of.
We cannot explain the movements of the menhaden.
During most of the season of 1881 they were on the coast of New Jersey, and most of the fishing fleet were there, but the menhaden did not leave. It is said that edible fish were scare on the coast during 1881, but it could not have been from the absence of their food, for the menhaden were there.
Steamers certainly don't frighten the fish. their going over a school of menhaden has no more effect than a sail vessel. They sink at the bow and come up at the stern. Moreover the steamers don't go near the school; they simply carry the fishing crews to the fishing grounds and wait off one side to receive the fish after they are caught.