April 26, 2012
“Society Publishes New Book on the Menhaden Fishing Industry”
SOUTHOLD, NY. The Southold Historical Society is pleased to announce the publication of a new book entitled: Munnawhatteaug – The Last Days of the Menhaden Industry on Eastern Long Island. The book, funded through donations and a grant from the Gerry Charitable Trust, features an extensive history of the Menhaden fishing industry, which flourished from the late 18th century all the way through the 1960s.
The book, which was co-authored by Society Director Geoffrey K. Fleming and Society Collection Manager Amy Kasuga Folk, includes a detailed history of the industry and almost 200 images of a typical bunker expedition of the 1960s. The images were taken by local photographer and antiquarian book dealer Peter Stevens, but had never been published before. “The images capture the industry in its waning days and provide a glimpse of a lost way of life,” stated Ms. Folk.
Menhaden, known locally as “bunker,” were used primarily as fertilizer. Each season they would be caught and transported by wagon to local farms, where they would be spread out onto the fields and then plowed into the earth. Their decomposition would help to replenish the soil, allowing for a better growing season and improved yields. During the 19th century it was not unheard of to capture over a million fish in a single day using hand-pulled seine nets along the shore.
By the time of the Industrial Revolution, bunker were no longer being solely sought as fertilizer, but for their oil. Factories sprang up along the bayside of the North Fork, where fisherman began using steam powered vessels to capture huge amounts of the fish for processing. Fish would be squeezed for their oil, which had uses as varied as lighting fuel, machine lubricant and as an ingredient in the cosmetics industry. The remaining fish material would often be dried, processed, and sold as animal feed.
“The factories made it impossible to live or enjoy the bay,” stated Mr. Fleming. “The smell during the summer precluded recreational uses until the late 19th century, when the factories were closed and moved to Napeague, near Montauk,” he continued. After the move, the bay was available for vacationers and hotel operators, who built a number of resorts along its shores.
Using modern vessels, the hunt for bunker continued up and down the east coast. One of the largest companies to do business on eastern Long Island was the Smith Meal Company, which dominated the industry there by the mid-20th century. In the late 1960s the large scale operators left eastern Long Island for the mid-Atlantic region of the United States, where it continues to operate today.
The photos used for the book were originally taken for a documentary film in the 1960s which was never made. The negatives languished in storage for years until Mr. Stevens brought their existence up to Mr. Fleming, who thought they would make an interesting and informative book.
In addition to the release of the book an exhibition of select photographs taken by Stevens will be on display at the Floyd Memorial Library in Greenport beginning in mid-May. The book is available both at the Society and at other fine book retailers. It can also be purchased online at several sites. For information on this book or other activities, please contact the society at (631) 765-5500 or online at www.southoldhistoricalsociety.org