Pogy: A little fish stirring up controversy

Published 11:45 pm Monday, February 9, 2009

Menhaden is a small fish creating a big controversy on the Mississippi Gulf Coast between those who want a catch limit and greater controls on the industry and Omega Protein, the Moss Point company that nets the fish and processes them into fish oil that contain omega-3 fatty acids.

On Jan. 20, the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources voted not to change any regulations or impose a catch limit on the menhaden industry. Omega’s stock rose the next day.

Members of Save the Bait Coalition, a network of fishermen and conservation groups, vow the fight isn’t over yet. They are calling for the commission to hold public hearings for comment on protecting menhaden, also known as pogy, setting catch limits and dealing with the bycatch of sport fish.

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“There isn’t a problem,” said Ben Landry, director of public affairs for Omega Protein, and he said that is why the commission didn’t impose any additional regulations on the industry.

There are about half the number of menhaden boats fishing in Mississippi waters now as there were in the 1970s, and he said the number of menhaden in the water is higher now than it was 40 years ago.

Companies have gone out of business due to economic and social issues. Costs are increasing while fish oil prices are fluid or volatile.

He said menhaden oil is used as a high-protein additive for livestock feed and aquaculture. The company’s Virginia plant makes omega-3 supplements and the lab in Houston, Texas, employs several full-time chefs formulating the oil into products like salad dressings and cookies.

Save the Bait Coalition wants a catch limit based on the average yearly catch of the pogy boats from 2002 to 2006 similar to Texas, which has approved a limit to protect the ecosystem.

Tom Becker, president of the Mississippi Charterboat Captains Association, said he objects to the large bycatch of sport fish caught in the menhaden nets and sucked into the boats with large vacuum hoses.

Even if it’s only 1 percent of the catch, as he said the menhaden industry claims, that is millions of pounds of sharks, red drum, dolphins and sport fish killed each year. Save the Bait Coalition contends the menhaden boats throw away double the entire red snapper quota for the Gulf of Mexico.

Landry said the bycatch isn’t the redfish and snapper the charter boats go after, but primarily croaker and mullet.

“We’re very proud of the fact that it’s less than 1 percent,” and he said Omega Protein takes precautions to reduce bycatch with shark extruder devices and other technological improvements.

Tom Wheatley, Gulf of Mexico regional representative for the Marine Fish Conservation Network, said the data on bycatch are outdated by at least five years and he advocates putting observers, who are employed and trained by the government and paid for by the menhaden fishing industry, to monitor the bycatch on every pogy boat.

Craig Huch of Long Beach was an observer in the 1990s during a bycatch study done by Richard Condry at the Louisiana State University Wetlands Research Center in Baton Rouge.

“The study was conducted over three seasons and was very extensive,” he said.

Huch rode pogy boats out of Louisiana and Mississippi and said bycatch wasn’t a problem. He thinks the coalition should instead focus on the shrimp industry, which he said is by far the biggest bycatch offender.

“We don’t have anything to hide,” said Landry, and he thinks if the industry pays for the observers, their opponents will then claim the study is biased.