Story by David Cresson, CCA Louisiana Chief Executive Officer
The stench is otherworldly, yet it is undeniable.
Thousands of menhaden and redfish carcasses litter Louisiana’s beaches. Slimy effluent discharge mixed with prop-washed sediment fouls our shallow surf zones, impacting fish, wildlife, shorelines, and local small businesses.
The pogie boats were here, and Louisianans finally had enough.
On Oct. 5, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission made a historic conservation decision, advancing a Notice of Intent to establish a one-mile menhaden reduction harvest buffer zone off Louisiana’s coast, along with special three-mile buffers around Grand Isle, Rutherford Beach, and Holly Beach.
After hours of discussion and testimony, an overflow crowd sat on the edge of their seats for the roll call vote. After votes of “aye” from Commissioners Joe McPherson, Brandon Decuir and Andy Brister, the entire issue came down to a deciding vote from Chairman Andrew Blanchard. He voted “aye,” advancing the measure 4-2. A 3-3 vote would have killed it.
The vote came after five years of commission discussions and legislative efforts by State Rep. Joseph Orgeron of Larose to bring reasonable regulation to Louisiana’s enormous reduction harvest. Each year, industry goliaths Omega Protein and Daybrook Fisheries remove about a billion pounds of menhaden and millions of pounds of bycatch, including thousands of spawning redfish, from Louisiana’s coastal waters.
“We would like to thank Commissioners McPherson, Decuir, Brister and Chairman Blanchard for voting to approve this NOI, protecting our coast and holding these companies accountable for their actions,” said CCA Louisiana Executive Director David Cresson at the time. “Needless to say, a great deal of thanks goes to Rep. Orgeron for his inspiring leadership on this issue.”
Commissioners added the item to the agenda after a series of fish spills caused by Omega Protein and Daybrook Fisheries in Southwestern Louisiana. Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries (LDWF) reported three incidents during the week of Sept. 11 through Sept. 14. Two were caused by Omega and one by Daybrook, spilling an estimated 850,000 menhaden, and untold amounts of bycatch.
As usual, the industry was dismissive about the impacts of their actions.
“We are aware that our operations inconvenienced Louisiana’s coastal residents,” said an Omega Protein representative during testimony in October.
But this is nothing new. In September of 2022, Omega Protein cut and abandoned a net with approximately 900,000 menhaden just off Holly Beach. The crew did not mark the enormous net, causing a serious safety hazard which was only discovered later by local anglers. LDWF enforcement wasn’t notified until four days after Omega abandoned the net. No fines or citations were issued for that incident.
But after the incidents this past September, LDWF cited both companies for wrongdoing. Agents cited Omega Protein for two counts of failing to report the release of purse seine gear or menhaden within two hours, and Westbank Fishing (Daybrook) for excessive killing of fish.
That investigation is ongoing and further charges could be pending. In addition to the citations issued, each company faces civil restitution for the value of the fish released or lost in each incident.
CCA Louisiana Chairman Charlie Caplinger and President Marc Mouton sent a letter to the Wildlife and Fisheries Commission before the October meeting, expressing frustration over the ongoing challenges caused by the industry and asking for the establishment of a one-mile coastwide harvest buffer. Eighty-two Louisiana legislators co-signed that letter.
State Sen. Jeremy Stine of Lake Charles was one of them. In fact, with so many recent incidents occurring near his district, he decided to write a letter of his own.
“Unfortunately, it seems that these are not rare or isolated incidents. Our area beaches have been covered with dead fish multiple times per summer after menhaden boats have been in the area fishing near the beaches,” wrote Stine. “We urge you to take action to ensure that our beaches and fisheries are protected from future incidents like this. Extend the menhaden harvest buffer zone to one mile.”
Stine is correct. Despite industry claims to the contrary, these incidents are not rare. In fact, during the October meeting, Commissioner McPherson revealed that there had been many more fish spills caused by Omega and Daybrook during the 2023 harvest season.
“We’re looking at 18 in one year when we were told it was only a handful,” said McPherson.
As of mid-October, there were 18 fish spills between Omega and Daybrook, totaling more than 2.5 million menhaden spilled, estimated at 1.69 million pounds.
In addition, a vessel fishing for Daybrook was cited in July for illegally harvesting 86,000 pounds of menhaden “well inside” of the quarter-mile buffer. The captain was fined $350, and the company faces civil restitution of more than $9,500.
Of course, incidents like these cause impacts to local communities, but there is also a significant concern about how the harvest impacts spawning redfish and other species. During the fall, the shallow beaches in Louisiana where the industry operates are a primary spawning area for redfish.
As a result of the three spills in September, social media, TV, and newspapers around the state were circulating reports, photographs, and videos showing hundreds of dead redfish on Rutherford and Holly Beach. One widely circulated post reported more than 500 redfish carcasses on a stretch of Rutherford Beach.
This is happening while Louisiana redfish stocks are undergoing challenges, and recreational anglers are facing reduced limits. State Rep. Troy Romero of Jennings addressed this issue in his own letter to LDWF following the September spills.
“It is very difficult for me to understand and explain to my constituents how we as a state can reduce the limits of recreational anglers in the name of protecting certain species but allow the commercial industry to kill thousands of fish with no recourse,” wrote Romero.
While the ruling in October is an enormously positive step, CCA Louisiana and our Gulf Menhaden Coalition partners are aware that this issue is far from over. The NOI is currently going through a public comment period and will be subject to legislative oversight. If the NOI proceeds as is, the new regulations will be in place by spring of 2024.