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Commercial Fishing in Western Albemarle Sound
Pound Nets Come to the Albemarle
By Jim Gay-Lord

Commercial Fishing in Western Albemarle SoundCommercial fishing in the western Albemarle Sound and the Chowan River began around1765. At that time and up until the middle of the 19th century, all commercial fishing was done with seines. These seine nets were hand-tied with cotton twine and then dipped in hot melted tar to protect them from the elements. The nets used in the sound would run from one-and-a-half to two miles long and have a maximum depth of 18 feet. The river seines were much shorter.

The setting of these huge nets was called “shooting the seine;” they would be loaded on two flat-boats, each manned by eight oarsmen who would row them from the shore to a fixed point in the channel. Once the net was set they would then bring ashore the long, large rope attached to the end of the seine which would be wrapped around an animal powered windlass so that the net could be gradually moved through the water to the shore where the waiting crew would land the fish.

To operate a sound-seine-fishery some 50 men and 20 women, fish cutters and cooks, along with 15 mules of horses which were used to land the seine? The fishing season lasted six weeks on the river, the first of April to the 10th of May, and nine weeks on the sound, the 10th of March to the 15th of May. Once the fishing began, the crew worked around the clock stopping only for the Sabbath or for serious storms. Eating and sleeping was done during the one-and-a-half to two hour period required to land the seine. Each member of the crew had a specific job and when that job was done he was free until the next haul came ashore. When the fish were running heavy there was very little free time for anyone.

During the antebellum period the seine fishery crews were made up of free blacks, the only white member of the group would be the captain or manager. Slaves wanted very much to work at the fisheries, but were not allowed to because of the serious threat this type of work posed to their health.

Seine fishing was hard work much exposure to the elements. The fish cutters worked under a shelter and had some protection from the weather, whereas the seine handlers worked in the water up to their waist for hours at the time without boots or protective clothing. Rations at the fisheries consisted primarily of fish, corn bread and molasses, and was washed down with black, unsweetened yaupon tea. Yaupon tea was made from the leaves of a local shrub whose only similarity to the Asian tea we know was that they both contained caffeine. Once or twice a week the crew would be served flour bread and meat. Wages for this round-the-clock work ranged from $1 to$1.35 per day, plus board, for seine hands and $2 to $2.50 a day, plus board, for seine menders. The people who worked at this profession did it because they loved it.

Now that we understand the severity of the working conditions at these fisheries we can also understand why whiskey played such a vital role in their operation. Owners of these seines have stated, in no uncertain term, that they could sooner operate without cooks or food than they could without whiskey. One hundred proof corn whiskey, at this time in history, sold for 10 cents per quart.

The men exposed to the elements, the seine haulers, were given the most gracious rations. They received three gills every haul (a gill is a liquid measurement of four ounces or one-quarter pint); one when they started to shoot the seine, one when they came ashore, and one when the staff (the pole fastened to the end of the seine) came in. From three to six hauls would be made in an 24-hour period; this means that, on the average, seine haulers were consuming 48 ounces of whiskey per day, or two ounces per hour. If the catch was large and the hours long the women would come in for a nip, two ounces or one-half gill. After the war boots and protective clothing were made available to the workers and whiskey consumption dropped by half.

By the middle of the 19th century, there were 28 huge seine fisheries operating in the Western Albemarle and Chowan River. The capital required to establish a seine fishery, from $8,000 to $15,000 gave a few affluent families, probably 15 or 20 a virtual monopoly of this particular industry.

Albemarle Sound

At the height of the fishing season, which usually came around the middle of April, these huge seines would land more than 100,000 herring, hundreds and hundreds of shad, rockfish and perch, all in a single haul. The average catch for horse powered seines was 1,500,000 herring.

When the fish were plentiful they would sell for $2.50 per 1,000 and people would travel great distances to secure their annual supply of this much prized delicacy. The average family would purchase 1000 fish per family member; herring was a daily staple in their diet. With corn at 40 cents per bushel and herring one-quarter cent each, there were many people in this area living on one dollar per month; of course they were eating herring and cornbread three times a day and washing it down with black, unsweetened yaupon tea.

The monopoly of the commercial fishing industry by the affluent few would have continued had it not bee for the arrival in 1869 of a German immigrant by the name of John P. Hettrick. Mr. Hettrick brought with him a fishing device known today as the “Pound Net”. This simple, but very effective net broke the strangle hold of the seine monopoly by making small-scale fishing operations possible. This also marked the beginning of the movement of the fisheries from the sound to the river. The pound net had several advantages over the huge power seine. It requires a much smaller amount of labor and at the same time can regulate the size of the labor force according to the size of the catch. Power seines had to maintain their 70-hond force regardless of the fish run. Whereas power-seines could be landed only on certain cleared beaches, a pound netter could land his fish anywhere he could get ashore. The small amount of capital required to get into pound net fishing was also very important. Whereas a power seine fishery required an outlay of many thousands of dollars, a pound net could be built and set for $300 or less.

As you might expect, the power seine owners were quick to see the threat that pound nets posed to their tightly controlled industry; they fought this “new contraption,” and even tried to have it outlawed, all to no avail. Because of the great advantage of the pound net over the seine, within just a few years the number of pound net settings had grown at such a rate that the seine owners noticed a definite decline in their catch.

In 1880, along the banks of the Western Albemarle Sound and the Chowan River, you would find a power seine in operation every few miles. In between there were hand seines, pound nets, and a few gill nets fished for shad. In a brief 22 years the average catch of the power seines had been cut in half. To give you some idea of just how extensive the pound net fishery was, in 1914 there were licensed in Chowan County 999 nets; 633 were set in the river and 366 in the sound. After 1907 the only power seine still in operation were to be found on the Roanoke River. The last of these, which was operated in Jamesville, came to an end in the 1960s. Today little is left to remind us of the once great commercial fishing industry which was such a vital part of the history of the “South Shore.”

The river herring which contributed so much to the sustenance of our ancestors is still enjoyed today with its consumption being limited mostly to a few weeks in spring. Corned herring, once to much a part of the diet of those who came before us, is now eaten only on occasion and then by only a small part of our population.

Those of us who live on the shores of the Albemarle Sound and its tributaries owe a great deal to the herring and the contribution it has made to the growth and development of this region. This strange little fish comes to our waters in the early spring driven by the irrepressible urge to reproduce. Then the water reaches a certain temperature it will spawn; two to three days after being fertilized by the male these tiny eggs hatch. At this stage the herring is little more that eyeballs and will slowly grow, during a seven-month period, to a length of three inches. It is now ready to leave our waters and enter the Atlantic Ocean, where by the millions, they will begin their long trek north to Nova Scotia and the Bay of Fundy. Once there they will remain until reaching sexual maturity, a period requiring three to five years, before repeating the endless cycle which guarantees their survival.

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Discover more about Washington County's connection with fishing at the
Roanoke River Maritime Museum.