DMR commission takes no action on menhaden regulations

By Steve Phillips - bio | email

BILOXI, MS (WLOX) -  One of the smallest fish in the Gulf has sparked a big debate between fishing interests and environmentalists.

At issue is whether to regulate the commercial catch of menhaden - the small, oily fish also known as pogies.

The Commission on Marine Resources took up the controversy at Tuesday's monthly meeting.

A report from commission biologists shows the catch of menhaden from the Gulf of Mexico is dramatically less than it was in the 1980s, a time when there were twice as many fish factories and many more pogie boats.

"Results indicate that the menhaden stock appears to be in good condition. It's not currently over fished, nor is it being over fished," said DMR fisheries biologist Buck Buchanan.

The commission chairman fears catch numbers alone may not tell the whole story.

"My concern is the impact this fishery has on the rest of the eco system. Twenty years ago we didn't even think about managing a fishery on an eco system basis, we just managed by species," said Dr. Vernon Asper.

Menhaden, or pogies, are used to produce fish oil capsules, fish meal and fertilizers. Omega Protein operates a menhaden processing plant in Moss Point.

"We're not going to sell our stockholders out by over fishing. We need to make sure there are menhaden for future business. And we're not going to put ourselves out of business. It's just not going to happen," said Omega spokesman Rick Schillaci.

Despite pleas from Chairman Asper to at least study the issue more, the three other commissioners voted against imposing regulations.

"But their by catch is an outrage. You know they catch shrimp?" said a Sierra Club spokesman, outside the building just after the vote.

After the vote, environmental groups pushing for menhaden regulations voiced their displeasure.

"So the question isn't will there be more menhaden next year, the question is are we taking too many menhaden out that it's going to impact other species," said Thomas Wheatley of the Marine Fish Conservation Network.

Both sides agree, the debate isn't over.

"I don't think this is the last we're going to see of this issue," said Chairman Asper, following the vote to take no action on new regulations.

The spokesman for the Omega Protein plant also urged commissioners to consider the financial aspect. During the fishing season, the pogie plant in Moss Point employs 263 workers with a direct economic impact of $25,000,000.