A bipartisan bill won’t go any further, but more decision-makers are beginning to question claims that the pogie industry is causing no harm to coastal fisheries or habitat
Just before Memorial Day weekend—the unofficial kickoff of summer and, for many of us, a season of sun-soaked fishing and boating—Louisiana’s Senate Natural Resources Committee killed a bill that would have, for the first time, set a catch limit on nearshore industrial menhaden harvest.
Rather than vote on the merits of House Bill 1033, which would have set a catch limit of approximately 800 million pounds in Louisiana state waters within three miles from shore, the Senate Committee voted 4-3 to defer further consideration of the legislation.
The Gulf-wide harvest of menhaden, called pogies in Louisiana, is usually about 1.2 billion pounds annually, about 90 percent of that harvest taking place off Louisiana’s coast and 70 percent of it inside the three-mile line.
H.B. 1033, championed by Lafourche Parish Representative Joe Orgeron, had a bipartisan group of 14 co-sponsors in the House. Originally, the bill called for a catch limit of about 575 million pounds, but Orgeron pledged to work with the menhaden industry to try and accommodate some of their requests for a larger harvest in years when conditions would allow it.
These concessions would have allowed the menhaden industry to harvest more fish annually than it has nearly every year since the 1980s. In the end, the industry again demonstrated that it’s not interested in any regulations at all in Louisiana.
Public support for the measure was overwhelming. So was support in the Louisiana House, which voted on April 27 to approve the measure 75-22.
Deferring the bill showed that four Senate Natural Resources Committee members continue to ignore what the public and most of their legislative colleagues understand: It’s unacceptable for two foreign-owned companies to continue to damage Louisiana’s beaches and harvest that much critical forage base—plus as much as 50 million pounds of bycatch—in state waters with virtually no management or oversight.
Representatives from Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries claimed throughout this year’s legislative session and over the last three years, as restrictions on the pogie industry have been debated, that a catch limit is unnecessary, the pogie industry is well-regulated, and it is causing no harm to coastal fisheries or habitat.
That claim is not backed by any available data or scientific studies. While stock assessments show the Gulf-wide pogie stock is healthy, there are no specific studies showing the impacts of the concentrated effort in Louisiana state waters. There are also no studies that show the industry is not harming beaches and shallow habitats where its vessels frequently make contact with the bottom.
Numerous coastal ecologists and scientists have raised concerns about habitat damage, loss of forage base, and bycatch from the industrial pogie fleet, as well as the damage to water quality caused by discharges from the boats and processing plants.
It’s hard to imagine any fishery that has no enforceable catch limit is well-managed, a point that was illustrated by State Senator Sharon Hewitt, one of three lawmakers on the committee who supported the bill’s passage.
“It doesn’t seem like you’re doing anything, really,” said Hewitt to the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries assistant secretary for fisheries, Patrick Banks, during the May 26 hearing. “I know you say you regulate because [menhaden] shows up in the statute 58 times, or something, but in terms of understanding how it affects the rest of the ecosystem or managing the amount of menhaden you take out of the Gulf, I don’t really see where you’re doing anything to manage that.”
Hewitt was pointing out the obvious. At the very least, the removal of a billion-plus pounds of pogies each year, nearly all of them from waters off Louisiana, means fewer of those fish in the water to serve their ecological function. Each time a pogie boat fishes in shallow water and disturbs the water bottom, there is damage being done to that habitat and the water quality in that area.
Each spawning-stock redfish or jack, shark, tarpon, and speckled trout that gets killed as bycatch in pogie nets—and there are hundreds of thousands killed each year—is one fewer in the water to reproduce. The latest examinations of the ecological role of pogies in the Gulf shows that pogies account for up to 20 percent of the diet of speckled trout and redfish. That number climbs to 40 percent for king and Spanish mackerel.
While that may be an oversimplification of a complicated issue, it’s the truth. There are no facts supporting the claim that the pogie industry is doing no harm. Louisiana is the only state in the entire Atlantic and Gulf basin to allow this massive, industrial reduction fishery to operate with no catch limit and with, thus far, unfettered access to ecologically sensitive, critical shallow-water habitats in coastal bays and along beaches.
It’s certainly frustrating for the TRCP, Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana, American Sportfishing Association, Audubon, Louisiana Charterboat Association, and many others supporting this legislation to see it ultimately fail.
There are wins to count despite the bill not becoming law, however. Having Senator Hewitt and others support the bill publicly and point out the massive gaps in pogie management in the Gulf means that eyes are opening to the problems associated with this industry.
The bill’s introduction and debate throughout the legislative session gave an opportunity for a May 16 article in both the New Orleans Times Picayune and Baton Rouge Advocate newspapers illustrating how little oversight there is of Louisiana’s pogie industry. It’s arguably the most comprehensive look at the industry ever published in a Louisiana newspaper.
Efforts to rein in the pogie industry in Louisiana and across the Gulf, set catch limits, protect shallow water areas, and move toward ecological management that considers the role these fish play in the ecosystem will continue and increase in the coming years. There will be more legislation introduced, more thorough studies conducted, and the science behind the role that pogies play in feeding other fish and improving water quality will continue to evolve.
The TRCP, CCA, ASA, IGFA, Bonefish and Tarpon Trust, and many other conservation groups are just getting started in shining a light on this foreign-owned industrial fishery. The fight to conserve and properly manage fisheries resources in the Gulf does not end here.
Top photo courtesy of Louisiana Sea Grant via Flickr.