Recreational fishers want Louisiana’s biggest commercial fishery to back off nearshore waters

‘Small fish, big debate’

By: - June 4, 2021 2:12 pm

More than 1.1 billion pounds of menhaden were netted in Gulf waters in 2019, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. (“Pogie boats near Venice (menhaden)” by Louisiana Sea Grant is licensed under CC BY 2.0)

A small silver fish was the topic of a nearly three hour discussion among fishers, environmental advocates and lawmakers at the Louisiana Capitol this week. At issue was House Bill 535, which would not allow menhaden fishing within a quarter mile of Louisiana’s shore.

Menhaden, also called pogies, are small bait fish caught in the Gulf of Mexico to be sold as animal feed, fish oil and bait. It’s the largest commercial fishery in the state by volume. More than 1.1 billion pounds of menhaden were netted in Gulf waters in 2019, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

But recreational fishers say that the boats used to catch the fish are coming too close to shore, and red drum and speckled trout are getting caught in their nets. Rep. Joseph Orgeron (R-Larose) introduced the bill at a Louisiana Senate Committee on Natural Resources meeting Wednesday. He said the legislation keeping menhaden fishers at least a quarter mile from shore was an attempt to compromise between pogie fishers, who want to continue to be able to fish closer to shore, and recreational fishers, who want to push the pogie boats a mile offshore.

To catch pogies, spotter planes fly over coastal waters in search of schools of the fish. When they spot the fish they call down to pogie boats, which chase down the menhaden. Once the pogie boats get close, they deploy two smaller boats with nets that encircle the schooling fish like a purse. The big boat then sucks the netted fish up with a hose.

Other Gulf states have restrictions on how close pogie boats can come to shore, said David Cresson, the CEO of the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana. Florida doesn’t allow menhaden fishing in state waters and Texas has a half mile buffer zone, as well as an annual catch limit.

Menhaden companies in Louisiana said that about 18% of the fish they catch are within a half mile of the coast. Orgeron’s bill initially proposed a buffer zone similar to Texas, but an amendment added to HB 535 during the committee hearing cut the buffer zone down from a half mile from shore to a quarter mile from shore. Still, companies said they would spend more time and money on fuel trying to catch fish further offshore.

The pogie industry has already shrunk because of economic difficulties, said Ben Landry, the director of public affairs for Omega Protein, one of three menhaden processors in the state. “It’s a little disingenuous to hear, ‘Well, they can just go someplace else and catch those fish, or it won’t hurt them,’” he said. Making up the 18% of catch caught in nearshore waters would be “awfully difficult,” he said.

While discussing the bill Orgeron said that a quarter mile buffer zone equates to 1,300 feet, about the distance from the state Capitol to the Mississippi River levee. Landry said that might seem like a small area. “But if I were looking for legislators this is where I’d go,” he said. “This is where menhaden are.”

The menhaden fishery experienced a 5% drop in catch from 2018 to 2019. This graph is from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s 2019 Fisheries of the United States report.

But allowing large fishing boats to enter shallow inshore waters poses other dangers, said Ed Landgraf, the chairman and founder of Coast and Marine Pipeline Operators, an industry group focused on preventing marine pipeline incidents. In 1989, a pogie boat struck a 16 inch natural gas pipeline, killing 11 fishers on board. “After reviewing this incident, we really are in support of a mile boundary,” he said.

Rep. Mack Cormier (D-Belle Chasse) said he was concerned the bill would put jobs at risk in south Plaquemines Parish. “In my district we stand to lose 365 jobs,” he said. “It is one of the only major job providers we have. Chevron left. Shell left. We need these jobs.”

The bill advanced out of committee without opposition Wednesday. “I said it on the floor in the House and I’ll say it here again,” Orgeron said. “Very small fish, very big debate.”

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Sara Sneath
Sara Sneath

Sara Sneath is an environmental journalist who lives in New Orleans with her dog and three bikes.