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A most important fish raises need for public scrutiny

Eicke
Eicke

The menhaden fishery is a bit of an enigma to the public, but the activity of the purse seine boats is well-known to many recreational anglers, conservationists and charter fishermen.

The pogie boats set their nets after an aircraft survey and direct the boats to schools of menhaden so that these vital forage fish can be removed in massive amounts from our waters.

The catch data is not widely known but reaches 83,439.2 metric tons (183,949,994 pounds) in landings at the Moss Point plant for the 2014 season, as reported by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

What the public does not know is how much of the catch landed at the Moss Point Omega Protein plant is from Mississippi waters (primarily the Mississippi Sound) and how much bycatch results from this activity.

The recent legislative initiative by the company to allow possession of up to 45 mature red drum per boat/per day as bycatch for the menhaden season, which lasts seven months, brought the greater issue to light, and our legislators wisely voted no.

That was a statement that our concerned citizens who treasure local marine resources appreciated.

Now, it's time to address the issue to assure that the massive catch of this industrial reduction fishery is regulated, which is a statement sure to raise the ire of Omega Protein since the company believes they are already sufficiently regulated.

Compare the management of other fisheries with this one's minimal regulations by considering the following facts:

-- The fishing season is set by statute and basically allows the pogie boats to fish without catch restrictions when menhaden are present in our nearshore waters.

-- With no limits applied to their catch, the company's defense is that the stock is stable, according to a statement based on a 2015 Gulf-wide stock assessment that failed to consider the importance of this forage species' ecosystem.

-- The pogie boats cannot fish within a mile of our shorelines in Harrison and Hancock counties and the Gulf Islands National Seashore, and the company is now objecting to the same provision being implemented in Jackson County.

-- Possession of red drum is prohibited -- a provision that has been in effect for many years but only recently enforced by MDMR Marine Enforcement -- and results in citations to boat captains.

-- The catch within Mississippi waters is considered a "trade secret" and isn't available to the public. This company is pursuing the catch of a public resource , but the public has no basis for assessing the catch or bycatch in Mississippi waters. Why is this allowed?

-- Particularly troubling is the industry's refusal to release bycatch numbers for all species caught other than menhaden.

This catch is known to include untold pounds of treasured species like spotted seatrout, cobia and sharks, which can currently be retained and aren't considered by fishery managers when rules are set to regulate recreational and commercial fishermen.

Menhaden fishing for reduction has been outlawed in every Atlantic state except Virginia and North Carolina. Of the Gulf states, only Mississippi and Louisiana allow virtually unfettered access to state waters. This focuses the company on Louisiana, which provides the majority of the catch, and on our inshore waters within the Mississippi Sound.

Instead of a stock assessment that minimally acknowledges the function of menhaden as forage for other fish, birds and marine mammals, it is time to assess the impact of this fishery from a broader perspective.

Industrial fishing presents a conflict because commercial entities must focus on the bottom line with little regard to the overall impact to the environment or how such an operation denies other user groups.

Coastal Conservation Association Mississippi is pursuing regulations based on currently unknown catch and bycatch data. With proper management based on information the public can assess, our treasured Mississippi Sound may return to better days and become a more viable resource for all to enjoy.

Contact F.J. Eicke, spokesman for the Coastal Conservation Association Mississippi, at CaptEicke@aol.com.

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