The Atlantic Ocean, the Cape Fear River and the Intracoastal Waterway come together at Southport to host one of the most spectac-ular
fishing grounds on the East Coast.
For most of the past century, Southport was a commercial fishing town that thrived on fish, shrimp, and marine life spawned by
a vast maze of marshes, waterways, and shoals. Menhaden was king for most of that century and holds a special place in the cultural
history of Southport.
The commercial fleets and rendering factories were the primary
employment opportunity for many Brunswick County residents and
many made their careers in the fishery, some with multi-generational ties.
During the menhaden days, Southport was not the same quaint,
charming and picturesque town it is now. Southport not only berthed its
diesel menhaden boat fleet near the center of town, but also supported
the nearby factories that cooked and processed the fish. The blue smoke
billowing from rusting smokestacks produced a pungent aroma that
carried as far as Wilmington.
In the 1960s, the noisy factories, wafting smells, aging fleets and
rugged sailors remained the commercial lifeblood of the town. But the
fishery began to decline, and for the first time in a century the bounty
from local and regional waters was in jeopardy.
The fleet, which once left port early in the morning and was usually
back before noon with a full load of menhaden, now had to travel much
farther at great expense with spotter pilots above to find fish. Contro-versies
grew as environmental groups and recreational fishermen argued
that data indicated the menhaden population was declining, particularly
among juvenile fish that spend much of their first year in the estuaries.
Faced with a declining fishery, rising costs, antiquated equipment,
regulatory pressure, and constant complaints about the prevalent
smell, the factories finally closed in the 1980s. Small-scale commercial
fishermen had ventured out from
Southport to hunt for menhaden
decade after decade in the 1900s.
But the forces of ever-tightening
regulation, powerful competi-tion,
and unrelenting coastal
development finally ended their
proud way of life.
Today, if you look closely
down Fish Factory Road in
Southport, past the houses,
restaurants and stores, the
ancient remains of the venera-ble
H.W. Anderson stand watch
over the once rutted road and
grass strip where spotter pilots
launched their dawn flights so
many years ago.
Top to bottom: The Cape Fear Oil Company dock on Southport’s waterfront indicate the basis of the town’s economy in the early 1900s. The
wooden reels used by menhaden fishermen to dry their nets stand tall over Southport’s waterfront at the foot of Howe Street in the early 1900s.
Following the closure of the fish factories in the 1980s, Southport transformed into the charming tourist destination that it is today.
MCNEIL/GAUSE COLLECTION, SOUTHPORT HISTORICAL SOCIETY
WBM march 2021