Workers at Cape Seafoods Inc., box pogies into 44-pound units that will be frozen and exported to Africa and Europe as food.

Menhaden, or pogies, are being off-loaded at the Jodrey State Fish Pier again. But this time, these oily, schooling, largely littoral small pelagics will end up in the stomachs of humans and not be used as industrial fish.

Former pogie seine fishermen and spotter pilots in town will shake their heads in disbelief over this history-making news. Herring rules and refrigerated seawater tanks have helped make the pogies' new role possible.

"We (at Cape Seafoods Inc.) have been talking about it for months (buying, processing, freezing and selling pogies for food)," said Dave Ellenton, vice president of Cape Seafoods Inc. "We have since sent samples to customers in Europe and Africa, and they have liked them."

The modern plant was built around 2001 to buy, process and sell herring and mackerel for food and bait — either fresh, salted or frozen. Neighboring Western Sea Fishing Co.'s mid-water trawlers, the 140-foot Voyager and 149-foot sister ships Challenger and Endeavour, have been supplying Cape Seafood with mackerel and herring over the years.

Western Sea Fishing also owns the small seiner Miss Lanie II. The larger vessels are equipped with fish pumps to suck aboard the catch and with refrigerated seawater tanks below decks that store the catch in about 32-degree water. Besides inhibiting autolysis, the water in the tanks also cushion the fish. The lipid-rich flesh of pogies, herring and mackerel tends to soften quickly in warm temperatures and under their own weight in crowded conditions.

"We'd rather be catching herring," Ellenton stressed. But changing herring rules that have lowered the annual quota and allow seine/fixed gear only for large-scale harvesting during the summer in the prime Area 1-A grounds in the Gulf of Maine have all but idled this fleet. Area 1-A will re-open to mid-water trawling in October if any of the 45,000 metric ton quota is left.

Western Sea Fishing has lately put the Voyager and its crew — Capt. Leonard Young, Shaun Heena, and Anthony Norton — to work pumping aboard and carrying several seiners' catches, including that of Group Lakeman's The Ugly Duck from Gloucester, netted off of Maine as well as off of New Jersey, a 32-hour run for the Voyager.

Once pumped right out of the seine at a rate of two tons per minute, the fish pass through a de-watering box, before being emptied into a series of below-deck refrigerated seawater tanks that can hold up to 900,000 pounds collectively.

"I've worked on seiners before, but never carried," said Young, who resides at Mount Desert Island, Maine.

"We aren't catching the pogies, the seiners are. The pogie numbers are around again," Ellenton said. He's referring to numbers of 12- to 15-inch adult fish and not their fry, or peanut bunkers, which have been often abundant within inshore waters north of Cape Cod past summers. Cape Seafoods' new market has opened up a badly-needed volume outlet for several of the seiners who can now fish and turn their catches right over to the Voyager at sea and not have to carry them in themselves.

Large pogies were frequently prolific along coastal waters north of Cape Cod from May through October in the 1970s and especially in 1980 when U.S. government figures reported more than 43 million pounds landed in Gloucester. The school sizes were sometimes so large they even suffocated themselves, washed ashore by the millions, and temporarily putrified the air and water of sections of shoreline, even beaches.

The seining operations of the vessels Ida & Joseph, Rockaway, and Dianne Carinhas netted much of the local landings in the 1980s. Then the closing of the de-hyde plant, which reduced pogies to fish meal and oil at the pier that decade, largely killed the Gloucester volume market. The large pogies also disappeared north of Cape Cod until mainly re-appearing this year.

Many recreational fishermen previously didn't appreciate pogie seiners working inshore, especially in Beverly-Salem Harbor. In 1972, during one summertime trip there aboard the Ida & Joseph, I witnessed several irate anglers motoring over to the vessel and angrily shouting with their clenched fists in the air, "Go back offshore with the Russians."

The Ida & Joseph's seine boat posted several highly-visible signs atop its wheelhouse that read, "Catching Non-Edible Fish Only — Menhaden and Bluebacks — $26/ton" to appease such people.

The Voyager even reported being boarded by several Maine environmental police officers this August while pumping aboard fish off Old Orchard Beach. Someone had called them and said, "A Russian ship is off the coast." The officers later told Gerry O'Neill, one of the principals in Western Sea Fishing, to buy some large American flags and keep them raised on the Voyager.

"Times have certainly changed. It's something to do, and it's better than being tied to the dock," said Heena of carrying the pogies.

Ellenton said, "There is definitely a potential to use that resource."

"I'm just hoping this will be a future market," O'Neill said.

Peter K. Prybot is a regular columnist for the Times. He writes about issues affecting the local fishing industry.

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