The Crab Island Fish Factory: site, smell, and the origins of an ecological awareness


Fishing, like hunting, is seen as the solitary expression of man’s predatory instinct.   For those who fabricate lores and are preternaturally attuned to the daily movement of fish throughout the seasons, fishing is high art.  This kind of patient pursuit, however, was threatened in the late 19th century and early 20th century by the onset of  industrialized fishing of the most fertile yet inedible fish in the sea, the forager fish menhaden, known to most South Jerseyans as bunker.


As Howard Bruce Franklin points out in his definitive treatment of the ‘menhaden reduction’ industry, beginning in the 1870s, great fleets of trawlers hauling “purse seine” nets captured hosts of oily menhaden and brought them back to countless ‘fish factories’ on the East Coast owned by towering industrialists like Philadelphia’s own Joseph Wharton.  Inside these plants low-skill white and black laborers converted the forage fish into fertilizer, oil, and other industrial solvents.

One such fish factory exists in New Jersey’s Great Bay on the Seven Islands’ Crab Island, and a few miles south of Tuckerton.  In the 1890s, Joseph Wharton doted over his menhaden reduction plant, giving it a “great deal of detailed attention” and moving boilers from his unproductive glass operations in the Pine Barrens to his facility on Crab Island.  But the huge fleets that trawled yards of the shores of America’s coast and sometimes left “slicks of oily smelly gurry or offal to wash on the beaches” both depleted the menhaden and the patience of coastal fishermen hunting edible catch.

As Franklin recounts, the rapid reduction of  the menhaden led leading scientists and industry advocates to question whether humans actually could deleteriously impact a seemingly inexhaustible fish population.  Despite arguments that natural predators consumed more menhaden than man, it was clear man was changing the equation.  Ecologist William Converse Kendall wrote in his “Effect on the Menhaden and Mackerel Fisheries Upon the Fish Supply” in 1908 that “the Menhaden fisheries must, therefore at least, have their effect upon the species that feed upon the menhaden by depriving them of so much food.”  As Franklin points out, the discussion over the the impact of overfishing menhaden was one of the country’s first forays into protoecological thinking: that man could have a direct hand in altering fish ecosystems.


Still, however, the menhaden industry labored on.  The Crab Island facility passed from Wharton to a series of fish product companies of  scant profitability such that it was shuttered in the late 1960s.  By this time the plant on Crab Island was processing imported fish from Louisiana.  A skeleton crew existed on the site until the American Farm Products Company went under and it was sold to the New Jersey Department of Environmental Protection in 1974.  The odiferous ‘stinkhouse‘ on Crab Island, as it was known to locals, burned in the 1980s and the site gradually reclaimed by the reedy grasses.  Towering above the marsh, the fish factory is visible from 8 miles out in Brigantine, a ruin to industrial fishing.

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