Delaware Public Media

The Menhaden Fish – A Staple of Lewes’ Colonial Economy

Jun 24, 2016

Little did we know that one fish – not even edible fed generations of Lewes Delaware seamen and their families.

The menhaden fish is a fisherman’s fish, meaning schools of 1,000 to 100,000 provide the universal food of larger fishes and attract them to their spawning grounds.

In Delaware Bay and the shallow reaches of the Atlantic Ocean, these small fishes – under fifteen inches tops – attract larger fish which made their way to many a dinner table.

More importantly, the menhaden fish, scaly, oily and fleshy, provided the oil for the colonial streetlamps and most of the colonial economy prior to the whale oil industry taking off out of New Bedford, Mass.

This kept tiny Lewes, first town in the first state, well-employed and well-off. The shipbuilding industry took off in Lewes as early as the seventeenth century, to provide small boats that launched many a fisherman’s career.

Today, the menhaden still has its uses, although, again, it can not be safely consumed by humans. Take a look on Omega fish oils and supplements marketed at local health food stores. Inside the tiny capsules you will find fish oil, with menhaden listed as an ingredient!