Popular Science Monthly/Volume 45/May 1894/Economic Uses of Non-Edible Fish

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FEW people are aware of the important uses to which nonedible fishes can be put, and fewer-still have any idea of the thousands of millions of such fishes that are to be found along the coast of the United States. What some of these uses are will be learned from the following statement of Prof. G. Brown Goode, in his article on American Menhaden in Part V of the Report of the United States Commissioner of Fish and Fisheries for 1887. He says: "Millions of pounds of fish not fit for human food are allowed every year to escape from nets into the sea, which, if saved and rightly utilized, would be worth untold sums for fertilizers and feeding purposes. Of the fish saved and used for fertilizers, a large portion is ill prepared." And he continues, "A large part of that which is well made is exported to Europe, where its value is better understood and its use is more rational and profitable." Following these statements Prof. Goode says that "the total loss to our agriculture from all these sources is not capable of accurate computation, but certainly amounts to hundreds of thousands and doubtless to millions of dollars annually." But there are other uses to which these millions of fishes can be profitably applied; so that the value of our available

PSM V45 D074 Menhaden oil and guano factory at tiverton ri.jpg
Fig. 1.—Part of a Menhaden Oil and Guano Factory at Tiverton R.I.

non-edible fish supply probably exceeds that of those fishes which are used for food.

About twenty years ago a beginning was made in utilizing non-edible fish; but, from one cause or other—prohibitive State legislation, want of knowledge as to the best ways of obtaining fish products, and various other less important impediments—the industry is still far from that position of commercial and industrial importance to which it is justly entitled. But, notwithstanding the impediments to which I have referred, and although the operations of the factories engaged in the utilization of nonedible fishes are confined to the production of oil and guano from menhaden, in the year when Prof. Goode made the estimate above quoted over eight hundred thousand dollars' worth of crude and dried guano was produced, and 2,426,589 gallons of oil were obtained.

Bearing these figures in mind, and remembering that Prof. Baird estimated that "twelve hundred million millions" of menhaden are destroyed annually by bluefish—during four months in the summer and fall—and that this destruction is imperceptible in the myriads of these fishes which abound on the coast, it is apparent that, under favorable conditions, the value of menhaden to the commerce of the country could easily be developed to an extent that would at least equal the combined values of all our food fisheries.

It would be extremely difficult to fix the time when fish was first employed for fertilizing. We are assured, however, that long before the advent of Europeans on this continent, the Indians used menhaden for raising agricultural produce. The early colonists imitated the natives; and in 1632 Thomas Morton, of Virginia, wrote: "There is a fish (by some called shadds, by some allizes) that at the spring of the yeare pass up the river to spawn in the ponds, and are taken in such multitudes. . . that the inhabitants doung their ground with them." Eleven years previous to Morton's record Governor Bradford tells how "in April, 1621," the colonists began to sow corn, "in which service Squanto (an Indian) stood them in good stead, showing them both ye manner how to set it and after how to dress & tend it. Also he tould them axcepte they got fish & set with it (in these old grounds) it would come to nothing; and he showed them yt in ye midle of Aprill they should have store enough come up ye brooke by which they begane to build, and taught them how to take it."

Still later, and just one hundred years ago, in the Transactions of the Society for the Promotion of Agriculture, Arts, and Manufactures, instituted in the State of New York, Hon. Ezra L'Hommedieu says: "Experiments made by using the fish called menhaden, or mossbunkers, as a manure have succeeded beyond expectation, and will likely become a source of wealth to farmers living on such parts of the seacoasts where they can be taken with ease and in great abundance. These fish abound with oil and blood more than any other kind of their size. They are not used for food, except by negroes in the West India Islands." This is absolute proof of the recognition of the value of menhaden

PSM V45 D076 Discharging fish by traveling buckets.jpg
Fig. 2.—Discharging a Cargo of Fish by Traveling Buckets.

for fertilizing purposes one, two, and nearly three centuries ago. But we have even stronger early testimony in the letter of President D wight, of Yale College, who in 1804 writes: "No manure is so cheap as this, . . . none is so rich, and few so lasting. Its effects on vegetation are prodigious. Lands which heretofore have scarcely yielded ten bushels of wheat by the acre, are said, when, dressed with whitefish (menhaden), to have yielded forty. . . . Such, upon the whole, have been their numbers, and such the ease with which they have been obtained, that lands in the neighborhood of productive fisheries are declared to have risen, within a few years, to three, four, and, in some cases, to six times their former value."

I shall give only one other authority for the use of fish and fish refuse as a fertilizer. In 1853 Mr. Ker B. Hamilton, Governor of Newfoundland, said: "In this island the manure universally applied to the soil is fish, consisting of the superabundant herrings and caplins in the process of decomposition, and generally without any earthy admixture; and the heads, bones, and entrails of codfish." From other sources we learn that in Norway, France, Japan, and in the British Islands, fish has been used, in its raw state, for fertilizing purposes, whenever it was found in great abundance.

Although we have evidence in the olden writings that the oil obtained from various fishes was used for lighting and other purposes, fish oil was practically unknown in commerce until about fifty years ago. Since then there have arisen hundreds of purposes to which it is daily applied.

The origin of the present menhaden industry was the discovery of an old lady, named Mrs. John Bartlett, of Blue Hill, Maine, who in 1850, when boiling some fish for her chickens, observed a thin scum of oil upon the surface of the water. "Some of this she bottled, and when on a visit to Boston soon after carried samples to Mr. E. B. Phillips, one of the leading oil merchants of that city, who encouraged her to bring more. The following year the Bartlett family industriously plied their gill nets and sent to market thirteen barrels of oil, for which they were paid at the rate of eleven dollars per barrel." In the following year this family made one hundred barrels. Then, the value of menhaden oil having become recognized, many oil presses—of a more or less imperfect construction were established along the coast, and the industry developed so rapidly that within twenty years the yield of menhaden oil exceeded that of the whale (from the American fisheries). It now exceeds the aggregate of all the whale, seal, and cod oil made in the United States, and Prof. Brown Goode says, "As a source of oil, the menhaden is of more importance than any other marine animal."

The prime object of the first factories established for utilizing menhaden was the production of oil—the residuum, or "scrap," as the pressed fish is called, being looked upon as a secondary consideration. Nevertheless, this by-product was of equal worth, and in some years has exceeded in value the output of oil. This "scrap" is a much better fertilizer than the whole fish; for the undesirable element—the oil, which "clogged the earth and made it unfit for tillage"—has been removed, and the "scrap" is left, containing plant food in proportions far exceeding those of any known natural fertilizer.

The process of extracting the oil from the menhaden is very simple. When the fish is delivered at the factory it is immediately placed in large iron tanks, containing about a foot deep of water. Heat is then applied until the mass begins to simmer, when the heat is turned off. In this way the fish is thoroughly steamed, and the oil cells are more or less separated from the flesh, so that the oil can be readily and thoroughly released in the presses. Often, when the fish is rich in oil, a considerable quantity exudes during the steaming process. This is drawn off from the top of the simmering mass and runs in troughs to the oil tank.

After the steaming, the fish is placed in "curbs" (circular vessels having perforated bottoms) and rolled to the oil presses. Here the oil is released by hydraulic pressure, and the remainder is simply the nitrogenous part of the fish, which is called "scrap."

PSM V45 D078 Steaming the fish.jpg
Fig. 3.—Steaming the Fish.

In the factories of the United States Menhaden Oil and Guano Association the oil is not rectified; it is expressed in the simple manner that I have explained, and then shipped to the different oil merchants and refineries of the United States and Europe.

The preparation of the scrap, or fish guano, is also very simple. After the oil is released, the solid matter is taken to the drying boards—a large field covered with closely fitting grooved and tongued flooring—upon which it is spread to dry. At Tiverton the drying field comprises nearly twenty acres. From first to last the greatest care is taken that no foreign substance shall become mixed with it. When it is sufficiently dry it is bagged for transportation, either to the manufacturer of artificial fertilizers or direct to the farmer. The total quantity of menhaden "scrap" manufactured during the nineteen years from 1874 to 1892 inclusive was 912,467 tons (dry and acid), and the amount made from other non-edible fishes and waste fish in the United States is estimated

PSM V45 D079 Non edible fish scrap processing.jpg
Fig. 4.—Interior of Curb Room in Factory, showing the Iron Cylinders in which the Scrap is Pressed.

at 150,000 tons. By analysis, the average percentage of nitrogen was found to be eight per cent in the dry scrap and six per cent in the acid, while the acid guano contained four per cent of phosphoric acid, and the dry seven per cent. This gives us a total plant food (nitrogen and phosphoric acid) of 135,000 tons, or about $31,000,000 worth at the present rate fixed by the New England experiment stations.

The average price at which this fish guano was sold was fifteen dollars per ton for the acid scrap and twenty-five dollars for the dry. The guano from the Peruvian deposits which has been imported into this country during the past thirty years contained from four to eight per cent of nitrogen, with about an equal percentage of phosphoric acid, and millions of dollars have been paid for it at the rate of from forty-five dollars to eighty dollars per ton. Why such a great disproportion exists in the prices seems to be unanswerable, and it will seem still stranger in view of the fact that the fishermen of Lofoden, one of the Norwegian Islands, should readily get forty-five dollars per ton for dry scrap made by them from cod refuse. These apparently anomalous conditions can, however, be partially accounted for from the facts that the Peruvian guano is sold in a finely powdered state, and perfectly dry, and the Lofoden islanders grind their scrap after drying it upon the rocks by the sun's heat. In this condition the nitrogen is more quickly assimilated, and the effects more speedily appreciated by the growing crops. But this process could easily be applied to the American product, and I have no doubt but that ground or machine desiccated fish guano will form one of the chief features of our manufacturers as soon as favorable or rather just legislation will enable the manufacturers to calculate upon more certain supplies.

Mr. William Bowker, of the Massachusetts Board of Agriculture, estimates that the 135,000 tons of plant food, referred to earlier, contained more than sufficient phosphoric acid and enough nitrogen for "3,200,000 acres of corn, of fifty bushels each, or 7,000,000 acres of potatoes of one hundred bushels each."

Let us now glance at the figures of the menhaden oil production. From 1874 to 1892, inclusive, the quantity of oil expressed from menhaden amounted to over 46,000,000 gallons—about 165,000 tons. This was sold for prices varying according to the abundance of the fish, from fifteen to twenty-one cents per gallon in the seasons of 1885, 1886, and 1887, to thirty-five cents in 1879, and forty in 1881; the price being thirty-two to thirty-three cents during the past year (1893); so that the average price was about thirty cents for these 46,000,000 gallons, or $13,800,000 for the oil product of the menhaden fisheries for nineteen years—equivalent to $725,000 per annum. Add to this the average yearly value of the acid and dry guano, as computed by Mr. Bowker, and we find that the menhaden industry has enriched the country by $2,360,000 annually since 1873.

The oil has been used largely in tanning leather, and as the basis for many oil paints and varnishes, while a great deal of it is consumed for lighting purposes in our mines and elsewhere. The quantity of oil annually exported is also very large, and the demand for it is so great that markets could readily be obtained for ten times the quantity. These are startling facts, and facts that deserve most studious consideration. We have been reaping over two million dollars' worth of products from menhaden and other non-edible fish annually, despite repressive legislation in three of the States in whose waters those fishes abound most plentifully; we pay millions of dollars annually for imported fertilizers; we have agricultural and industrial demands for ten times the

PSM V45 D081 Drying fish for fertilizer.jpg
Fig. 5.—Part of a Drying Floor.

amount we have been producing; and we are assured beyond question that an abundance of fish, quite equal to these demands, swim along our shores, and that the capture of a sufficient number of them would not appreciably affect their plentifulness. Surely the legislation that prevents the development of this source of wealth must be at fault somewhere.

Such legislation exists in Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia; and the conditions under which these laws were passed deserve to be cited here. In considering these repressive enactments it will be apropos first to examine the arguments urged in favor of them. Three principal objections to the menhaden fisheries are made: First, that fishing for menhaden, mackerel, or any other fish with a purse seine (the appliance now used) depletes the supply of these fishes; second, that menhaden is the food of many of the food fishes, and the depletion or "driving away of the shoals" of this species by seining, forces the food fishes—mackerel, striped bass, bluefish, etc.—to seek other waters; and, third, that the enormous captures of menhaden for the purposes of making oil and guano prevent the procuring of bait for our cod and other fisheries; it being included in the third objection that inasmuch as cod, mackerel, bluefish, and other species are captured with menhaden bait, this latter fish is a natural food of the food fishes. It is also claimed that the shoals of fish are frightened by the purse seines, so much so that they cease to frequent the shores in the same abundance. These constitute in brief the objections to the capture of menhaden for oil and guano, and form the basis of the reasons why the States of Maine, Massachusetts, New York, and Virginia passed prohibitory laws.

Let us now examine the other side of the question. Before the Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries of the United States Senate, February 17, 1892, Mr. William F. Brown, of Philadelphia, said: "The annual value of our" (the Menhaden Association) "product for the last twenty years has averaged $1,500,000, more than two thirds of which is paid to the two thousand men employed. And when you consider that every dollar of this—more than $25,000,000—is a permanent clear addition to the wealth of the nation, because the crude material is taken from the sea; and when you have seen how generally the whole people are interested, directly and indirectly, in our success or failure, you will stand amazed at the recital of the persecutions and legislative wrongs to which we have been subjected." Further on Mr. Brown made a general denial of all the objections claimed by the opponents of the menhaden industry. This statement is backed up by the evidence of Mr. Eugene Blackford, of New York; of Captain Nathaniel Church and his brother Daniel T.

PSM V45 D083 Purse seine fishing.jpg
Fig. 6.-Shooting a Purse Seine.

Church, of Tiverton, R. I.; and by the opinions of Captain J. W. Collins, of the United States Fish Commission, Prof. G. Brown Goode, and many others scientifically and practically engaged in deep-sea and coast fisheries. For instance Captain Collins says:

"The researches and inquiries made by the Fish Commission, I think, show conclusively that certain species of migratory fishes, like, for instance, the mackerel and menhaden, are subject to influences which determine their abundance outside of anything that can be done by man—influences that are much more potent than man's are." In proof of this statement both Captain Church and Mr, Collins have drawn attention to the facts that, in the case of mackerel—and menhaden are, like mackerel, migratory and similarly influenced—seasons of scarcity may be and are followed by years of comparative plenty; and a series of seasons of scarcity may be followed by a gradual increase until an abundance is reached that is very surprising.

This disposes of the claim that purse-seine fishing affects the natural scarcity or abundance of fish on the coast. Mr, Church and Mr. R. E. Earle authoritatively deny the statements that food fishes are taken in the nets of the menhaden steamers. And Mr. Earle says that, when engaged, as an expert of the United States Fish Commission, to inquire into the menhaden fisheries, he did not see enough food fish taken for the table of the steamer as the result of several hauls of menhaden.

Right here it will be interesting to describe the method of seining menhaden, showing how it is almost impossible to capture food fishes other than migratory fishes in the purse seines. The steamers used in the menhaden fishery average about seventy-five tons register and have a carrying capacity of nearly one hundred and fifty tons. Each steamer is manned by twenty to twenty-five men, of whom sixteen are fishermen. When a school of fish is sighted, two boats put out from the steamer, each boat containing eight men. From one of these boats the net is "shot"—the other holding the top and foot lines of one end. The usual length of a purse net or seine is about eighteen hundred feet and the depth sixty to one hundred and twenty feet. As one of the boats rows around the school of fish, the net is thrown out from the other, and when the circle is made, both ends of the "bottom line" are drawn. This makes the "purse"; but it also allows the "bottom fish," which are practically all food fishes, time to escape; so that as a rule no fishes except the menhaden, or whatever kind of fishes are inclosed on the surface, are captured by the purse seines. The top lines are then drawn, and the bag or purse completed. The contents are then towed along to the steamer, where they are hoisted by steam, and the seine emptied into the "hold,"

PSM V45 D085 A menhaden steamer receiving a purse seine haul.jpg
A Menhaden Steamer Showing Purse Seine About to be Emptied after a Haul.

It should be stated here that the meshes of every purse seine employed in the menhaden industry are two and seven eighths inches square, so that it is practically impossible to capture any immature fishes in these nets.

Aside from the operations of the factories, menhaden are used as bait for food fishes; a small quantity is salted and exported to the West Indies, where it is eaten by the negroes; and many more are plowed into the soil by farmers along the Atlantic coast, as has been the custom for centuries.

The question of the menhaden being used as food by the food fishes is practically disposed of by Dr. Bean, the ichthyologist of the United States Fish Commission, who testified that, having examined the stomachs of numbers of bluefish and other food fishes, he failed to find any evidence of the menhaden except in the form in which it is used as a bait for "chumming," and only in a very few cases was it present at all. Mr. Atwood, of Bristol County, Massachusetts, whose experience as a practical fisherman extends back to 1816, makes the following interesting statement:

"The great changes in our fisheries have been caused by the bluefish. . . . When they first appeared in our bay I was living at Long Point (Provincetown), in a little village containing some two hundred and seventy population, engaged in the net fishery. The bluefish affected our fishing (mackerel, menhaden, etc.) so much that the people were obliged to leave the place. Family after family moved away, leaving that locality, which is now a desolate, barren, and sandy waste." Passing over the depredations of the bluefish, Mr. Atwood says, "I firmly believe there is no necessity for the passage of any general legislative act for the protection or regulation of our sea fish and fisheries."

J. M. Rimbaud, a famous French ichthyologist and practical fisherman, says that the migratory fishes can not be diminished by overfishing; but that local fishes might be exterminated by constantly fishing for them. The Royal Commission appointed by Her Britannic Majesty's Government to inquire into the condition of the fisheries of Great Britain and Ireland, which consisted of Prof. Thomas Henry Huxley, Right Hon. James Caird, and the Right Hon. George Shaw Lefevre, after three years of exhaustive inquiry reported: "We advise that all acts of Parliament which profess to regulate or restrict the modes of fishing pursued in the open sea be repealed, and that unrestricted freedom of fishing be pursued hereafter." I heard Prof. Huxley state positively, in 1883, that after many years of study of the question he had come to the conclusion that the supply of migratory fishes, especially the herring, was inexhaustible.

I think I have now told enough about the non-edible fish industry of the Atlantic coast to show that it is an important source of national wealth, and I believe it will reasonably be deduced, from what I have written, that nothing but restrictive laws in several States prevents it from becoming of vastly greater importance.