The History of A Once “Endless Resource,” Shark Fishing, Port Salerno, St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon

Shark catch at the commercial plant in Port Salerno, ca 1930s/1940s. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Henderson Thurlow)
Tiger shark at the commercial plant in Port Salerno, ca 1930s/1940s. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Henderson Thurlow)
Port Salerno fishing village's shark factory ca. 1930s and 40s. (Photo courtesy of Stuart Heritage Collection and Alice Luckhardt.)
Port Salerno fishing village’s shark factory ca. 1930s and 40s. (Photo courtesy of Stuart Heritage Collection and Alice Luckhardt.)

Sharks seem to be feared more than they are respected….but that perception is changing as their endangered status becomes more critical and well-known. As most things that have to do with natural resources and the environment, there were few concerns regarding the “overfishing of sharks” in Florida the 1930s and 40s. Their supply seemed endless, and their value to the oceans and ecosystem was not widely understood.

This photo of a shark from my mother’s historic archives, represents one of the 25,000 sharks that were caught and processed in Port Salerno each year on average off our St Lucie Inlet during the 1930s and 40s. Port Salerno was a tiny fishing village. Today it is one of the hippest up and coming areas of Martin County. The shark plant is no longer there. A museum created in memory of such would be a great addition to the area…

During the 1930s, sharks provided important resources to society and gave fishing families a stable income. During World War II vitamin A was a hot item, especially for pilots pursuing accurate night vision during their dangerous missions.

Another interesting forgotten historical fact?….believe it or not, “by mistake” the first “shark repellent” was tested and created right here by local fishermen—yes–right off the St Lucie Inlet off our St Lucie River/Indian River Lagoon. It was “top-secret” and it worked!

Today I will feature a vignette of family friend, historian, and Miami native, Alice Luckhardt. Her very informative and comprehensive text is about Port Salerno’s shark fishing history. Alice and her husband, Greg, have written hundreds of  historical accounts that are shared in the Stuart News and are also part of the public archives of  Martin County’s Stuart Heritage. Thank you Alice for these important historical resources!

The sharks? Good luck to the  remaining; “may you be fruitful and multiply….”

A SAVE OUR SHARKS drawing by a JD Parker Elementary student, 2015 as part of the River Kidz in our schools program. (Photo JTL)
A Save Our Sharks Protect and Respect drawing by a JD Parker Elementary student, 2015 as part of the River Kidz in our schools program. (Photo JTL)
Historian Alcie Luckhardt. (Facebook photo 2015)
Historian Alcie Luckhardt. (Facebook photo 2015)
“Old Stuart,” The big city!  Salerno would have been much less developed and smaller than this south by about 10 miles.
Shark Industry, Port Salerno. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Henderson Thurlow)
Shark Industry, Port Salerno. The livers were used for vitamin A production. (Photo courtesy of Sandra Henderson Thurlow)

Historical Vignettes of Martin County: Salerno Shark Industries and Vitamin A by historian ALICE LUCKHARDT

STUART – Vitamin A, essential for good human health was once derived from oil extracted from the liver of sharks and a leading supplier of this valuable substance was the tiny fishing village of Salerno.

Shark liver oil was believed to promote wound healing, stimulate growth, increase resistance to infection, aid in combating fever and colds, improve eyesight, prevent excessive dryness of the skin as well as an overall general remedy for conditions of the respiratory tract and the digestive system.

Generally, the livers, chopped into fist-sized chunks, were rendered down in big vats. The oil could be skimmed off, cooled and canned, ready for shipment.

In the 1930s, assisted by brother George, Captain Charles L. Mooney’s Salerno Shark Industries-Fisheries, Inc., supplied not only the needed shark liver oil and novelty shark teeth for jewelry, but also the outer skin hide of the sharks. In 1938, an order was placed by a Chicago firm for 200,000 shark teeth. The Ocean Leather Corporation processed the skins into leather goods, primarily luggage. Fins, considered a delicacy by some, were shipped to China.

From its meager beginning, Mooney had continued to make improvements in the business, increasing boats, buildings and processing methods.

By 1941, a shark meal plant, measuring 36 x 65 feet and equipped with hammer mills, drying machines and conveyors, enabled the profitable use of all of the shark’s carcass, accommodating about 200 pounds an hour.

An aroma filled the air as the cooker, steam boiler, hammer mill, flaker dehydrator and sacker completely finished the process, ready for shipment, the ‘meal’ eventually to become food for dogs, cats and poultry. To supply these industries, thousands of sharks were caught in the Gulf Stream and elsewhere, sometimes as many as 600 in a single week.

Scientific analysis and studies were conducted to determine the best use for shark products.

In the 1940s, Robert M. French, Sr., who had founded the Shark Fisheries of Hialeah, Florida, headed the Salerno site, joined later by his sons Robert Jr. and Price, Mooney having previously relinquished his interest due to ill health.

In 1944, the Shark Fishery was purchased by the Borden Co., one of the largest users of Vitamin A in the US, retaining R. M. French Sr. as chief executive. Borden’s primary interest was to increase vitamin production, from shark liver oil, to fortify and enrich its milk products.

The liver, being a main source of Vitamin A, was considered of utmost importance in the war effort, with supplies from world markets having been cut off. The vitamin was important not only for the health of the soldiers, but especially for night fliers who took the vitamin before take-off to see better in the dark.

Actually, during those years, a very secretive study was also being made which involved the Salerno fishery, the details of which were known by only about three or four people in the area.

Although sharks will sometimes attack and eat other living or freshly killed sharks, it was noticed by the fishermen that hooks which had been baited with cut-up pieces of the flesh from sharks caught the day before, were virtually left untouched and that, furthermore, the sharks actually avoided the area, not returning for days.

With that information, the US Federal Government under the Office of Strategic Services, employed Stewart Springer, from Homestead, Florida, a chemist, to work with the Salerno plant to further investigate and conduct experiments, the end results being the development of a shark repellant.

Known as ‘Shark Chaser,’ it proved to be invaluable in saving the lives of sailors or aviators forced down at sea in shark-infested waters. According to Robert and Price French, interviewed later, it was difficult to have to pretend “nothing unusual was going on” as the experiments involved the cooking of thousands of pounds of shark meat in barrels of an alcohol solution, the aroma definitely attracting some attention.

By 1946, the shark fishery plant, one of only three of its kind in the U.S. was considered essential to public welfare and continued to supply shark liver oil and other products. Borden expanded and improved the facility which at its height employed as many as 50 people and used 12 boats to haul in the ‘tigers of the sea’ some 25,000 or more per year, with an annual gross of about $500,000.

However, by 1947, due to scientific research, Vitamin A could be synthesized and was therefore much less expensive. In time, the man-made vitamin supplanted the natural one obtained from the shark and by July 1950, the Borden Corp. business in Salerno was closed.

In June 1962, the Shark Industries factory was burned to the ground by the Port Salerno Volunteer Fire Department as a fire practice drill. The remains of an industry which had gained national attention, recognition and perhaps gratitude, was gone. With some imagination, those in Salerno may sense that distinct aroma still lingering in the air.

Alice L. Luckhardt is a freelance historical researcher and writer and member of the Board of Directors for the Stuart Heritage Museum and researcher for the Elliott and House of Refuge.

___________________________________________

Stuart Heritage: (http://www.stuartheritagemuseum.com)
FWC Sharks: (http://myfwc.com/fishing/saltwater/recreational/sharks/)
Sharks and Conservation: (https://www.flmnh.ufl.edu/fish/sharks/sharks.htm)

.....
…..River Kidz…

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