A Menhaden fishing boat, overwhelmed by an unexpectedly large catch, unleashed a huge raft of dead fish off the coast of southwest Louisiana last week, sparking outrage from conservation groups and renewed calls for stricter rules for the largest but least regulated fisheries of the state triggered.
Omega Protein estimates it lost about 900,000 menhaden when one of its crews cut free a bulging net less than a mile from Holly Beach in Cameron Parish on September 8th. Dead fish formed a rotting mass over the weekend, prompting complaints from several charter boat captains. targeting the redfish and other species that rely on menhaden for food.
“It’s hard not to be disgusted when you see that,” said Chris Macaluso, marine fisheries director for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “It seems overly wasteful to catch that much fish and it just sits there. There should be some kind of punishment.”
The incident drew a shrug from the State Department for Wildlife and Fisheries. Jason Adriance, one of the agency’s fisheries managers, said that only about 2% of the menhaden stock is fished in the Gulf of Mexico each year, so Omega Protein’s mishap doesn’t matter much.
“A few million more doesn’t matter,” Adriance said.
Menhaden, also known as Pogy and Fatback, are by far the state’s largest fishery, generating between £600 million and £900 million for the two foreign-owned Menhaden fishing companies operating in Louisiana. Most dollar-bill-sized fish are ground up into fertilizer, pet food, and fish oil supplements.
Menhaden are part of the foundation of the marine food web and provide a high-fat energy source for marine mammals, fish and birds. Conservation and recreational fishing groups are concerned that the largely uncontrolled fisheries are taking food from other species such as speckled trout and dolphins, which have suffered population declines in recent years. They note that all other Gulf states either ban menhaden fishing or have rules so strict that the industry is now focused solely on Louisiana waters.
Menhaden nets often catch more than menhaden, making lost net an ecological concern, said Ben Graham, chair of the Wildlife and Fisheries Finfish Task Force, which has criticized the agency’s menhaden policy.
“A lot of other fish try to catch menhaden and get caught in these nets,” Graham said. “So we have this web out there that is conducting a constant cycle of killing.”
A charter boat captain found the 1,500-foot net and reported it, but search teams sent by Omega and Wildlife and Fisheries were unable to find it.
The Menhaden fishing boat was a victim of its own success, Omega spokesman Ben Landry said.
“We’ve seen some really, really big schools down in southwest Louisiana,” he said. “The captain thought he brought back £500,000. As it turned out, it was much more than that.”
The net was so overloaded that a larger “mother ship” could not safely bring the fish on board. The captain ordered the net cut free just before it ripped open and floated away.
“He knew he was going to lose the net because it had gotten too heavy,” Landry said. “Then the weight of the fish tore the net.”
Having to cut a net is rare, but major net breaks happen two to three times a year, Landry said.
Much of the catch appears to have died while being caught in the net. Anglers spotted a large amount of bycatch including redfish floating belly up in the middle of the menhaden. Photos of the dead fish were doing the rounds among recreational fishing groups this week.
“We must continue to shine a light on this industry and the damage being done to our fisheries, coastal wildlife and critical habitats,” the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana wrote in an email to members Wednesday.
Louisiana’s first major fishing restrictions went into effect this summer. Menhaden ships are required to stay a quarter mile from much of the coast, with larger buffers around Elmer’s Island, Grand Isle and Grand Terre Island. But, as conservation groups note, the rules fall far short of those of other Gulf states.
A bill that would have imposed the state’s first catch limits on menhaden was blocked by a state Senate committee in May. Industry supporters say a catch limit could kill the industry and cost Louisiana several hundred jobs.
But the economic benefits come at a cost. Plaquemines health officials and environmental groups have been sounding the alarm about Daybrook Fisheries’ Menhaden processing facility in Empire for decades. The facility’s safety manager filed a lawsuit in March alleging that the facility deliberately spews large amounts of fish waste into the Mississippi River and other nearby waterways and refused to take basic precautions to avoid spills.
Omega’s Abbeville facility was the source of odor complaints from towns more than 20 miles away. Environmental violations included a $1 million fine in 2017 for dumping large amounts of polluted water into the Vermilion River twice.
In 2019, Omega agreed to pay $1 million to resolve allegations that the company obtained a government loan by falsely certifying compliance with clean water laws.
Landry said the dumping of nearly a million fish last week was “an unfortunate situation” that the company hopes to avoid.
“We take this seriously and will review our procedures,” he said. “But with a population of hundreds of billions, losing that number of fish isn’t something that makes people worry there’s a problem with the stocks.”
“I’ve never seen a fishery decline as quickly as the redfish fishery,” says one experienced angler.
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