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Managing menhaden: A new plan for the most important fish in the sea

Editor’s Note:  The following series “Something Fishy” is a week-long series curated by Rosalind Kidwell as part of the Digital Research Internship Program in partnership with ViaNolaVie. The DRI Program is a Newcomb Insitute technology initiative for undergraduate students combining technology skillsets, feminist leadership, and the digital humanities.

An integral part of life in South Louisiana is our extensive aquatic life. Fish permeate New Orleans culture, whether they’re from the Gulf or a nearby Bayou, whether they’re on or off our plates. This collection of articles, Something Fishy, explores the importance of these creatures in the nearby area.

Though often forgotten, menhaden are a fish crucial to the health of the Gulf and to the entire fishing industry, and Laine-Kaplan Levinson investigates their role in our lives. This article was originally published on NolaVie on March 31, 2014.

menhaden

They’re called bunker up north, and Pogies here in the South, and are sometimes referred to as “the most important fish in the sea.” These are the menhaden.

Since it’s not a fish you eat, you’ve probably never heard of it. But the annual menhaden advisory committee meeting was a big deal this year due to a new menhaden management plan.

Hear Laine Kaplan-Levenson on WWNO

The Menhaden Advisory Committee met in the North Ballroom of the Royal Sonesta on Bourbon Street for its 2014 annual meeting. This time, members were joined by something new: an audience.

The committee is made up of industry and state representatives from the Gulf of Mexico region. They sat in a horseshoe formation in the center of the room, with a podium at the opening reserved for public comment, the first time that’s been allowed.

Who wants to sit in a room listening to a bunch of guys talk about menhaden catch projections for 2014? Well, people like Marianne Cufone. Cufone is executive director of Recirculating Farms Coalition; they work with water-based growers in hydroponics, aquaponics, and recirculating aquaculture.

Cufone is one of a group who pushed to participate in this year’s meeting. She’s been following the menhaden industry for years, and breaks down why these fish are so important:

“These are small fish that live in the Gulf and they’re the base of the food chain, which means their primary existence is to be eaten by other fish and wildlife like dolphins and seabirds like brown pelicans,” Cufone says. “But they are also very unique because they filter the waters in the Gulf.”

A pelican eating a Menhaden. Credit John B. Spohrer, Jr.

A pelican eating a menhaden.
Credit: John B. Spohrer, Jr.

That means menhaden are crucial to the ecosystem, while also being an important catch for commercial fishermen, too. Two companies, the Omega Protein Corporation and Daybrook Fisheries, make up the entire menhaden fishing industry. They turn menhaden into products: food for livestock and pets and things for humans, like margarine and fish oil pills.

“Our primary animal nutrition products are fish meal that goes to swine diet, aquaculture, pet food, dog food that you see in most grocery stores,” says Ben Landry, the director of public affairs for the Omega Protein Corporation.

Last year almost 500 metric tons of menhaden were fished off the coast of Louisiana alone. Marianne Cufone worries menhaden are overfished.

I think we really need to, especially after I’ve seen the landings for this year, discuss how many menhaden need to be left in the Gulf of Mexico,” she says. “Not just to reproduce themselves over time, but to provide these services that we sorely need, like as a food source and as a filter feeder, and a variety of other things.”

Another concern is bycatch — other species caught unintentionally during the fishing process. The large nets set out in open water to ensnare menhaden also trap anything swimming along, like redfish. Markham Dickson spoke up about that at the meeting.

I’m out there in Breton Sound seeing the menhaden boats hauling out there, and last year there was a pretty significant red fish kill out here, thousands of dead mature red fish just floating in the bycatch poagie foam…” he said.

Markham’s a charter fisherman who works out of Shell Beach in St. Bernard Parish.

“People believe that there’s two types of people” says Markham. “There’s conservationists who care about the life of animals, and there’s harvesters who care about the money you can make from harvesting ‘em, and there’s a lot of people in between.”

Overfishing and bycatch are under control, says Menhaden Advisory Committee Chair Ron Lukins. “The National Marine Fisheries Service says that by catching the menhaden fisheries does not rise to the issue of a management concern. So we don’t worry too much about it from a scientific standpoint.”

Ben Landry from Omega Protein is the first to admit the science isn’t perfect, but it’s what the industry has to go on.

“In a perfect world fisheries management could account for all the fish, and it’s just simply not there, there’s not reliable science to project how many redfish are taken and how many menhaden are in the Gulf.” Landry says it’s “better to rely on the best available science and not what could be affecting the population.”

Others feel there are better ways to see exactly how much is being caught of what. Charter fisherman Markham thinks that more monitoring on the boats will lead to more reliable data. “I had an argument with one of the guys and neither of us knew. In the end he was saying ‘Well, you don’t know if we killed those redfish,’ and I said, ‘Well you don’t know if you killed ‘em.’ We don’t know. So the idea is, in order to know, we need to check those nets because I can’t figure out why else so many would be dying with us not knowing.”

Marianne Cufone wants the commercial fishing companies to consider more than their catch. “Most fisheries managers interpret the science as the population of menhaden is just fine.”

She says those managers aren’t thinking of menhaden in relation to the things the fish eat — or that eat

dolphin tossing fish Credit: John B. Spohrer, Jr.

dolphin tossing fish Credit: John B. Spohrer, Jr.

them, says Cufone.  The pelicans, dolphins and other sealife. “So our hope is to eventually get the Commission to recommend what we’re calling an ecosystem-based plan, and also base an annual cap — an annual limit on how many can be caught in accord with that plan.”

Texas placed a cap on menhaden a number of years ago in response to a public push. With the majority of menhaden caught off the coast of Louisiana, watchdogs of water ecosystems want the same here.

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