Unlimited take of forage fish and associated bycatch in state waters will continue
This week the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources elected to leave the industrial harvest of menhaden essentially unregulated by refusing to enact a cap on harvest in state waters. A proposal to limit the commercial take of menhaden, an essential forage fish, to 63 million pounds per year was rejected by Commissioners, allowing the industry to continue operating without limits in sensitive near-shore waters such as the Mississippi Sound.
“We are disappointed. A cap on harvest of a vital forage fish seems like an essential element of proper marine resources management,” said F. J. Eicke, Co-Chairman of the Government Relations Committee. “Sixty-three million pounds is the average the industry harvested from 2000-2012 from what we can gather from the information that the public is allowed to see, so this did not represent a cutback or any hardship on the industry. It can only be interpreted that the industry simply refuses to accept any limits on what it can take from Mississippi waters.”
From 2000-2012, the industry removed on average 497,500 metric tons (slightly over a billion pounds) of menhaden from the Gulf of Mexico every year. The proposed cap of 63 million pounds was designed to prevent localized depletions of forage in areas that serve as nursery areas in state waters. However, Commissioners rejected the idea that such limits are needed because, when measured on a Gulf-wide basis, the stock of menhaden is considered healthy.
“No one knows how much menhaden any particular area needs for it to fully serve its role in the ecosystem, so it is easy for the industry to lobby against any limits based on the coast-wide status of the population,” said Tommy Elkins, Chairman of the Board of Directors. “It essentially means that wiping out the stock at any given time in the Mississippi Sound is permissible because there may be plenty of menhaden off the coast of Texas or Florida. For a commission that is supposed to act as the steward of the marine resources we have here in Mississippi, that makes no sense.”
In addition to depletion of the forage base in state waters, the menhaden industry has an unknown bycatch of predators and game fish associated with its harvest. Recent video of menhaden boats swarming recreational anglers just off the shore of Louisiana showed dozens of dead breeding-size red drum floating behind the pogie boats, shining a spotlight on the issue of bycatch in the commercial fishery. The industry is not required to publicly disclose what other marine life is killed in the purse seines as bycatch.
“The unregulated commercial harvest of a key forage species in state waters continues to be extremely frustrating to the angling community, and it appears that it’s an issue that our state fisheries managers are unwilling to address,” said Kyle Johnson, Co-Chairman of the GRC. “There are so many unanswered questions related to this harvest – including exactly what and how much is killed as bycatch – that it’s imperative the state take a greater role in managing the fishery.”
Menhaden harvesters in the Atlantic have recently caught the ire of conservationists as well. Cooke Aquaculture, which recently acquired Omega Protein, announced earlier this year that it was intentionally violating a harvest cap in the Chesapeake Bay which was implemented by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). The ASMFC subsequently found the company out of compliance with its menhaden management plan and has referred the matter to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Nine East Coast governors have signed a letter urging the Secretary to impose a moratorium on industrial menhaden harvest until the company comes back into compliance with the management plan. On December 17, NOAA advised ASMFC that a moratorium would be imposed June 17, 2020, if the Commonwealth of Virginia, which has not protested this finding of non-compliance, does not implement the required management.