State Politics

Mississippi bill would allow pogy boats to keep more red fish

TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD/2009Workers operate a water hose that will wash the Menhaden from a boat and into a processing plant.
TIM ISBELL/SUN HERALD/2009Workers operate a water hose that will wash the Menhaden from a boat and into a processing plant. THE SUN HERALD

A bill in the state Senate Ports and Marine Resources Committee would greatly increase the number of red drum a commercial fishing boat could have on board.

That, a conservation group says, is unacceptable.

"All of this has been done without any public scrutiny," said F.J. Eicke of the Coastal Conservation Association. He said the conservationists were not included in any discussions about the bill.

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Sen. Brice Wiggins of Pascagoula said he was asked by Omega Protein, which fishes for menhaden in Mississippi waters, to file the bill.

"They are looking out for their captains," Wiggins said. "The way the law is now, there is zero tolerance. This allows law enforcement some leeway. As in any kind of law, there should be flexibility."

Wiggins said the boat captains are responsible for the fines and have a violation that stays on their record that could hurt them during jobs searches.

The bill would increase from zero to 45 the number of red drum, also known as red fish, that can be kept by boats that fish with purse seines. Eicke said the red fish population is getting healthier but "we're not where we need to be.

"And now they want to allow them to take 45 fish every trip."

That's not the only part of the bill the CCA doesn't like.

A couple of times, "shall" would be changed to "may," which Eicke said would enable law enforcement to let violators off with lesser penalties. Under both the current and proposed law, fines are $100 per red drum. But the penalty also would cost the violator the nets used to catch the fish. The change adds leeway to that penalty, though, by changing "shall" to "may."

Wiggins said the bill attempts to protect red fish and other species that could wind up as bycatch by requiring the menhaden nets to have excluder devices designed to reduce that bycatch, something that isn't in the current law.

DMR spokeswoman Melissa Scallan said the DMR last year issued 14 tickets at $100 each to Omega Protein for bycatch violations.

And, although the bill says "any boat or vessel carrying or using a purse seine," Scallan said it applies only to the commercial menhaden fleet.

And Eicke said Omega -- a corporation that catches menhaden to produce omega-3 fish oil, specialty fishmeal and "organic fish solubles" for livestock and aquaculture feed manufacturers -- is the menhaden fleet.

Menhaden, also known as pogy, is food for red fish, which explains how they end up in commercial nets. In Mississippi's rather shallow waters, that usually means the juvenile red fish of less than 30 inches or 4 years of age.

It is illegal to catch or possess red fish in federal waters, the deeper waters of the Gulf where the larger fish live.

Oceana, a group that tries to watch over the world's oceans, said the bill could have benefits.

"I would argue it is a perfect opportunity for bycatch caps to be used to limit red drum bycatch," said Gil Brogan, fisheries campaign manager. "Often, a conservative limit with real enforcement and accountability that shuts down the fishery is more useful to limit catch than a zero limit that has no means to ensure accountability."

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