Controversy over pogy boats in Louisiana waters rages on

Updated: Oct. 27, 2022 at 9:01 PM CDT
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NEW ORLEANS (WVUE) - A little over a quarter-mile off Scofield Island, the commercial boat “Kittiwake” fishes for menhaden, sometimes referred to as “the most important fish in the sea.”

Also called pogy and fatback, menhaden are by far Louisiana’s largest fishery, generating upwards of 500 million pounds per year. That’s more than shrimp, crabs, and oysters combined. Most of the fish are ground up into fertilizer, pet food, and fish oil supplements.

Two plants in Louisiana and one in Mississippi grind the fish into a protein powder used as feed for livestock and in aquaculture.

“Right now, it’s like the wild west out here,” charter boat captain Eric Newman says.

Pogies are also the focus of a dispute between the industry and sport fishermen, including complaints from both sides about the other frequently intruding on their space in the water.

Industrial menhaden fishing is banned in Florida and Alabama completely. Mississippi won’t allow it within a mile of its shores. Texas has half-mile and one-mile buffers and a strict catch limit.

“Here in Louisiana, we’ve recently implemented a laughable one-quarter-mile buffer,” David Cresson with the Coastal Conservation Association says. “We were outside a quarter-mile today and you could see the damage that was being done in those shallow areas.”

To haul in their catch, pogy boats dispatch two smaller boats that unfurl a 1,700-foot-long net. They draw the end together and fold the bottom of the net to capture the fish, which are then vacuumed into the mother boat.

Wherever there is fishing, there is the potential for bycatch - the incidental capture of non-target species.

“Those species that are caught as bycatch are typically not prized recreation fish. It’s more your crocker, your mullet,” Ben Landry with Omega Protein says.

The two sides point to different figures when it comes to bycatch, but the numbers are in the 1-3% range.

Newman is among the critics, concerned the boats scoop up more than just pogies.

“There needs to be a bigger buffer zone,” Newman says.

“Everything out here eats pogies,” Chris Macaluso of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership says. “... dolphins, sharks, especially bull redfish this time of year.”

Pogy boat captain Mike Dameron says the bars on the end of the boat’s vacuum hose, and more narrow gaps up top, prevent larger fish from entering the hold.

“Bigger fish that make it through will hit those series of bars and then be discharged back overboard to sea,” Dameron says.

Even some fish that avoid getting sucked into the boat end up dying, but there are no exact numbers.

“I have never seen them make a set - and I’ve seen them make a lot of sets - where they didn’t kill some big redfish,” Macaluso says.

“The redfish and speckled trout that we hear our critics say is really minute amounts compared to what recreational anglers are removing from the water,” Landry says.

“We think it’s unfair that our livelihoods, and the livelihoods of thousands of people that exist in this industry, is being unfairly challenged without any scientific evidence to support it,” Kuttel says.

FILE — Frozen and salted menhaden sit in a barrel at a lobster bait warehouse, Thursday, Oct....
FILE — Frozen and salted menhaden sit in a barrel at a lobster bait warehouse, Thursday, Oct. 19, 2017, in Portland, Maine. (AP Photo/Robert F. Bukaty, File)(Robert F. Bukaty | AP)

Over the last couple of years, Louisiana lawmakers came close to placing tighter restrictions on the pogy boats, limiting their catch, but the bills eventually died.

“It’s a question of sharing the economic value of the coast. We believe there’s nothing that we do that is challenging the livelihood of anyone, not a commercial charter boat captain, not a recreational fisherman,” Francois Kuttel, owner of Westbank Fishing in southern Plaquemines Parish, says.

In late October, the pogy boats are wrapping up their season.

“You’re coming out here and you’re seeing these fish that are here to breed, getting killed and thrown back in the water dead. It’s really hard for the average guy not to have his stomach turned by seeing that,” Macaluso says.

“Again, you’ve got to look at the impact of the amount of fish that we do catch. And are they not fishing the redfish during the time these fish are spawning?” Kuttel asks.

The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission recently moved toward enacting stricter recreational limits on speckled trout amid signs the species’ numbers are dropping.

“It’s user conflict. People don’t want to see the big bad commercial fisherman out there on the water. Commercial fishing built this country,” Dameron says.

Overall, the industry says it creates 800 direct jobs and pumps $500 million into the economy, but it’s shrinking. There are only about one-third as many boats as there were in the 1980s.

“By pushing us out, they’re gonna challenge our economics. They will bankrupt us,” Kuttel says.

Kuttel says the disputed area closer to shore amounts to 20% of their catch.

“We fish where we fish because that’s where the fish is,” Kuttel says.

But there are other issues, like abandoned nets.

Last month, a pogy boat near Holly Beach dumped an estimated 900,000 pounds of menhaden - most of them dead.

“And there’s a regulation, which we support, we are not opposing, which will place an onus on us to make sure that incidents like that do not happen in the future and if they do, that we are penalized,” Kuttel says.

This is also, to a certain degree, a philosophical disagreement about Louisiana’s coast, how we use it, and the lack of white sand beaches and tourists.

“The Louisiana coastline is fundamentally different than those of, for example, Mississippi, where it is dotted with hotels from one side to the other,” Kuttel says.

“Our beaches are just as important if not more important. Our beaches have all been restored with oil spill money. We spent a billion dollars on restoring these beaches in this part of the state,” Macaluso says.

Both sides talk of compromise, but that has proven elusive as the controversy over Louisiana’s largest fishery rages on.

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