Menhaden industry rebounds after Gulf oil spill

MOSS POINT, MS (WLOX) - Inside Omega Protein, mountains of fish meal wait to be processed. The smell is intense, but for workers here, they like to say it smells like money.

Outside, fishing boats are docked as the season winds down. Last season was wiped out, when the BP oil spill shut down virtually the entire Gulf of Mexico to fishing.

Tom Wittman is the general manager of the Moss Point operation. There were some worries heading into 2011.

"Of course we had concerns but as we went into the year with testing on the fish and the fish abundance it turned out to be better than expected," Wittmann said.

Overfishing is not a concern.

"Menhaden fishing is very regulated," Wittmann said. "National Marine Fisheries, every other year they do stock assessments and the reports have come back that the species is healthy."

Wittmann said the fish meal may be the same as always, but the market for the product is changing.

"What we're trying to do is get our product in the higher niche markets," Wittmann explained. "The Omega 3 fatty acid is very important to human health and we're moving most of our products in that direction."

When most people think of this industry, they think of fish. But it's a lot more than that. This company employs accountants, secretaries, and clerks. Not only that, they have their own shipyard to refurbish ships, according to Wittmann.

"Well we employ here at this plant just over 200 people and we have a sister company next door, the shipyard, Omega Shipyard. They employ approximately 100 people depending on the season," Wittman explained.

The banner year was marred by a horrible accident in May. A pogey boat and ship collided in the Gulf, sinking the fishing boat, killing three crewmen. The accident remains under investigation.

Wittmann says he remembers that terrible day.

"Certainly, when you have a loss of your fellow workers, it's something that stays with you a good while," Wittmann said. "We did have a memorial service at sea and here on land for those people and we did pay our last respects but it will linger with us for many years."

A year both successful and tragic. Omega Protein's economic impact on the coast is estimated at $34 million, with a payroll alone in excess of $7 million.  The Menhaden season runs from mid-April until November 1.

After the season is over, processors at Omega Protein perform maintenance duties at the plant, while boat captains and the crewmen pursue other fishing opportunities.

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