Red Drum Under Attack
A simple decision by an enforcement officer with the Mississippi Department of Marine Resources to enforce the law and write a game violation ticket a few weeks ago has sparked a murky chain reaction that has made its way all the way to the state capital. State law specifically prohibits commercial boats harvesting menhaden from retaining red drum that are often caught in their nets as bycatch. An officer with the DMR recently observed crew members on an Omega Protein menhaden boat keeping a number of mature red drum and wrote the captain a ticket.
“We applaud the Department of Marine Resources officer for upholding the law, exactly as he was supposed to do,” said F. J. Eicke with the Mississippi Chapter of Coastal Conservation Association. “The laws protecting our marine resources exist for a reason, and it is unbelievable to us that rather than simply obey the law like everyone else, Omega Protein launched a stealth campaign to change the law to suit its own needs.”
CCA Mississippi and other conservationists were alarmed at reports of a bill that quietly made its way to the Mississippi legislature seeking to change current regulations that disallow the menhaden industry from retaining any red drum bycatch. Early reports were that the industry was seeking to retain up to one percent of its overall harvest as by catch. SB 2311 filed by Sen. Brice Wiggins of Jackson County, now specifies that every menhaden boat be allowed to retain up to 45 mature red drum per day.
“Since every predator in the ocean feeds on menhaden, it is safe to assume that every time an Omega boat purse seines a school of these forage fish the bycatch is significant. Apparently it is alarming enough that Omega doesn’t want anyone to know exactly what it is,” says Eicke. “Before the State of Mississippi passes any law to allow Omega to retain any red drum at all, it should certainly require independent scientific analysis of how much damage menhaden operations are doing to our marine resources.”
The public is not allowed to know the full extent of Omega Protein’s bycatch; since Omega is the only company in the industry, their bycatch is considered something of a trade secret. Nevertheless, an allowance of 45 mature red drum per day, per boat for a 10-boat fleet will have a significant impact on red drum in Mississippi waters over the course of a menhaden season. Conceivably, the entire commercial allocation of red drum could be harvested by the menhaden industry in a relatively short amount of time.
“This legislative effort is a very defensive reaction to a boat captain getting a ticket for a few hundred bucks, so it makes you wonder what exactly is going here that the industry doesn’t want the public to know,” says Eicke. “Before the legislature even thinks about expanding the industry’s bycatch, we need to know a great deal more information about Omega’s operations. We suspect that if the true extent of that bycatch was known, the debate wouldn’t be about getting out from under a measly game violation ticket; it would be about whether having this destructive activity in our waters is even remotely worth the cost.”