Trouble Ahead for Gulf of Mexico Menhaden Stocks?

A scientist fears that commercially harvesting more than a billion pounds of menhaden in the Gulf per year could threaten the species’ health.

A Gulf of Mexico menhaden seine operation in action
Huge nets and spotter planes characterize menhaden-netting operations such as Omega Protein's in the Gulf of Mexico.Courtesy Capt. Mike Frenette

Calling menhaden "the most important fish in the sea," Dr. Jerry Ault — professor and chair of the Department of Marine Ecosystems and Society with the University of Miami's Rosenstiel School of Marine & Atmospheric Science — caught the attention of a large gathering of significant players in the sport-fishing media and industry during a presentation at a Marsh Madness event on October 2 in Venice, Louisiana.

With a major management decision pending from the agency that manages menhaden stocks in the Atlantic, the humble, oily little "pogy" has been getting attention in mainstream media in recent months. But much less attention has been directed, so far, to menhaden populations in Gulf Coast states.

That, said Ault, needs to change, and soon. Harvesting effort has been shifting from the Atlantic to the Gulf. As a result in 2015, the commercial fishing industry (primarily Omega Protein, also the predominant harvester in the Atlantic, particularly Chesapeake Bay) netted a record 1.2 billion pounds from the Gulf.

Ault noted that in addition to concerns about the effect of a reduced menhaden population on nearly all predators that rely on them for food, we shouldn’t overlook the fact that menhaden are filter feeders; the constant filtering of water through their gills collectively adds up to an enormous and vital ecological cleaning system. Their population at historical levels could filter each year the entire outflow of the Mississippi River 34 times over (of particular relevance to the Gulf’s annual hypoxic “dead zone”).

The University of Miami's Jerry Ault addresses sportsmen
Jerry Ault addresses a gathering of sportsmen in Venice, Louisiana.Doug Olander / Sport Fishing

“So the menhaden stock in the Gulf has gone down,” Ault said. “How much is in question,” since fishery managers have long relied on the industry itself (again, Omega Protein) to provide data by which stock size is gauged.

Ault particularly caught the attention of this group of sportsmen when explaining that Omega Protein boats are allowed to retain a five-percent bycatch taken in their nets. “Bycatch” means everything other than the netters’ target, menhaden.

One of the most eye-opening statistis cited by Ault was just what 5 percent of 1.2 billion pounds comes to. The scientist said the math works out to an astonishing 60 million pounds per year, much of that game fishes such as redfish, sea trout, tarpon and more.

Jesse Simpkins, with St. Croix Rods, introduced Capt. Mike Frenette — at whose Redfish Lodge of Louisiana the event was held — and Frenette, who's been guiding out of Venice for 37 years, told of seeing in recent years trails of dead bull reds floating in the Gulf or rotting on beaches, the result of menhaden netting.

Dead bull redfish on Gulf of Mexico beach from menhaden netters
A dead bull redfish on a Gulf beach near Venice, Louisiana. Capt. Mike Frenette reports seeing many washed up on beaches or floating in the Gulf after menhaden netters have moved through.Courtesy Capt. Mike Frenette

Menhaden are fundamental to recreational fishing in the Gulf. Ault offered a relative idea of the economic importance of the little fish by pointing out that an American Sportfishing Association study estimated the value of the Gulf of Mexico recreational-fishing industry at about $44 billion per year. Omega Protein’s menhaden industry is worth $325 million per year.

“We need to start getting the word out [regarding the Gulf menhaden fishery] that we could kill our huge recreational-fishing industry if we don’t manage this fishery right,” Bev Landstreet, Ault’s associate, said.

"Managing right" means working toward ecosystem-based management for Gulf stocks, the same approach that both recreational-fishing and environmental groups are pushing hard for Atlantic stocks. A traditional, single-species management approach would allow a much higher level of menhaden to be netted each year, an option favored by Omega Protein.

Still, he said, “We’re not about stopping all fishing for menhaden, but about making good decisions” about harvesting them.

Ault and Landstreet are working toward a specific campaign to protect menhaden in the Gulf, as is the case for menhaden in the central Atlantic. For now their efforts are aimed at laying groundwork and raising awareness of concerns for Gulf menhaden.