Menhaden Harvest Cap Proposed for Mississippi Waters

Proposal would limit removals to 63 million pounds from state waters.

Pogy-netting operation
Pogy-netting operations like this, along with their spotter planes, extract vast tonnage of menhaden from northern Gulf waters every year.Benson Chiles

In response to ongoing concerns about intense industrial removals of menhaden from sensitive coastal areas, CCA Mississippi is supporting efforts to enact a harvest cap of 28,900 metric tons from state waters. The proposed cap represents the average reported landings of the vital forage fish by the reduction industry from 2000 to 2012. If enacted, the cap would limit the reduction industry to more than 63 million pounds of menhaden every year.

“That harvest represents a tremendous, silent drain on the marine resources of Mississippi every year,” said Tommy Elkins, Chairman of the Board of Directors. “Menhaden are a key link in the food chain, the link that transforms the sun’s energy into forage for a host of predators and gamefish. The reduction industry is basically eliminating a key food source and inflicting unknown bycatch damage on Mississippi’s coastal areas at the same time. Sixty-three million pounds sounds like a lot, but the real numbers could be far more than that. It is past time to cap the harvest and start taking real steps to manage menhaden as a key part of the marine ecosystem instead of as a single feeder stock for Cooke Aquaculture.”

Past attempts to manage the fishery in Mississippi with common-sense regulations have always been met with stiff resistance from the reduction industry. Those efforts have included regulations that recognized the Mississippi Sound’s status as a nursery area for numerous gamefish species as well as a proposal to prohibit purse seine nets within one-mile of the shoreline in Jackson County, which is a regulation that has been in effect for Hancock and Harrison counties for years. Neither of those proposals were able to overcome the political influence of the industry.

“This is an entirely reasonable proposal to cap the harvest at the industry’s average, until managers have more resources and information to determine what impact removing 63 million pounds of forage has on our state waters,” said Kyle Johnson, Co-Chairman of the Government Relations Committee. “We don’t believe we can simply rely on Cooke to exercise reasonable limits on their catch, and this gives the state another tool to manage the fishery.”

Cooke Aquaculture is a Canadian-owned company with extensive aquaculture operations on the east and west coasts. Cooke recently acquired Omega Protein, which announced earlier this year that it was intentionally violating a harvest cap in the Chesapeake Bay which was implemented by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC). The ASMFC subsequently found the company out of compliance with its menhaden management plan and has referred the matter to the U.S. Secretary of Commerce. Virginia Governor Ralph Northam, the state that includes Omega Protein’s Reedville plant, has endorsed the effort. Here in Mississippi, the company has run afoul of state fishing regulations in the past, including redfish retention and fish kills of menhaden and other species that impacted coastal areas.

“The harvest cap in the Chesapeake Bay was enacted to guard against localized depletions of a key forage species in sensitive nursery areas, which is exactly the conservation concern we have here in the Mississippi Sound,” said F. J. Eicke, Co-Chairman of the GRC. “Cooke has not demonstrated that they are inclined to be particularly good corporate citizens in the Chesapeake or here, and that should motivate our state fishery managers to take extra precautions with our forage base, starting with a harvest cap.”

Harvest data from Omega Protein has never been disclosed on a state-by-state basis, not even to the resource managers with regulatory authority over the fishery, including apparently the Mississippi Commission for Marine Resources (MCMR) and not to the public.The secrecy over harvest leaves officials with virtually no information on which to base a precautionary management plan such as CCA Mississippi is proposing. Data from the period 2000-2012 are used for the harvest cap as it was revealed in the 2015 Regional Plan published by the Gulf States Marine Fishery Commission (GSMFC).

“Our proposal recommends that the cap be maintained as a precautionary, ecosystem-based management plan, noted as needed by the GSMFC, and following federal guidelines that project stock assessments recommending movement to ecosystem-based management,” said Eicke.

The MCMR will next meet Dec. 17 in the Bolton Building in Biloxi at 9:00 a.m. and the harvest cap will be introduced to the Commission. CCA Mississippi is encouraging anglers and conservationists to attend the meeting and voice support for this reasonable, precautionary regulation. For more information, click HERE to read the proposal submitted by CCA Mississippi.