12/14/2010 08:50 pm ET Updated May 25, 2011

Fishing Restrictions Hurt Louisiana's Meal and Oil Processors

(This article was published in "The Louisiana Weekly" in the Dec. 6, 2010 edition.)

Boats searching for menhaden -- also called pogy -- were hampered by Gulf fishing closures this summer, reducing the year's catch of that lucrative meal-and-oil species. The late-April start of the menhaden fishing season coincided with BP's rig explosion, and the jury's still out as to whether crude oil and the chemicals used to disperse it caused big kills of pogy in September or trimmed the species' numbers longer term.

In Louisiana, Daybrook Fisheries, Inc. operates a giant, menhaden-grinding plant in Plaquemines Parish, while Omega Protein Corp. owns two plants in central and western locations on the state's coast.

Rusty Gaude, Louisiana State University AgCenter fisheries agent for Plaquemines, St. Bernard and Orleans Parishes, said that diners won't find bony, oily menhaden on their plates and few people have even heard of it. "But every American consumes the fish's byproducts in some form -- in meat, poultry, dietary supplements or lipstick," he said. Anglers use it for bait.

Fishing closures around Plaquemines Parish this summer sent menhaden boats speeding west and far beyond their traditional grounds. "There are only so many hours in the day and week, and boats spent much more time traveling and less time fishing, affecting the size of this year's catch," Gaude said.

At Daybrook Fisheries, executive vice president W. Borden Wallace said that, of the Gulf's menhaden-processing facilities, "our plant located in Empire was closest to the spill and was the one most affected by it. We normally fish on both sides of Plaquemines Parish, but because of closures from mid-June into September our catch this season was down by over 30% from what would have been expected -- based on historic levels."

Daybrook is the largest, private-sector employer in lower Plaquemines Parish, according to company president Gregory Holt.

The number of Gulf menhaden caught in 2010 -- by"purse-seine gear" or large nets encircling schools -- and processed by plants was down 17% from last year, and was off 15% from the 2005-2009 average, according to Joseph Smith, biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration's Beaufort Laboratory in North Carolina.

The menhaden catch usually swells in the summer, but local fishing closures reached a peak in July and that month's Gulf landings were down 38% from a year earlier and off 41% from the previous, five-year average, Smith said. During normal summers, menhaden boats traverse the Mississippi Sound, the Breton and Chandeleur Sounds east of the Mississippi River, and areas west of the river in near-shore waters from Louisiana to east Texas. By July, however, sections extending as far west as Morgan City, La. were closed to commercial fishing, Smith said.

"At one point in July, the only areas open to the Gulf menhaden fleet were Louisiana state waters west of Morgan City -- at zero to three miles from shore," Smith said. By early August, some of those areas had reopened, and in September and October catches improved as menhaden fishing was allowed on traditional grounds and weather was favorable, he noted.

Ben Landry, spokesman for Omega Protein, said "our Gulf season opened on April 19, one day before the Deepwater Horizon explosion, and we ended our season on Oct. 29. Our catch this year was roughly 80% of our ten-year average, and that was due to state and federal fishing closures." The Houston-based company is the nation's leading producer of specialty fish meal and Omega-3 fish oil.

Landry said "as far as we can tell, the Gulf's menhaden population was not affected by oil" in the water. As menhaden grow, they can swim farther to follow food sources. "Schools moved away from the oil this summer, and we saw fish in heavy numbers west of the Mississippi River in the Gulf towards western Louisiana."

While this year's Gulf catch is down, "menhaden is a very renewable species," Landry said. "Since one menhaden can produce as many as 306,000 eggs, trillions of eggs are produced off the Louisiana coast each winter." U.S. government studies show no signs that menhaden is overfished in the Gulf, he said.

Smith of NOAA said that the most recent, stock study of Gulf menhaden -- conducted by scientists at the National Marine Fisheries Service lab at Beaufort, N.C. -- was published in 2007, and included fisheries data through 2004. "That assessment found that overfishing of Gulf menhaden was not occurring, nor was the stock overfished," he said. The lab's next, Gulf menhaden assessment is scheduled for 2011, using data through the 2010 season.

In September, alarm bells sounded when menhaden turned up in big numbers in kills, or swarms of dead fish, in coastal Plaquemines Parish. Landry said state biologists attributed those kills to low oxygen. He said "that occurs when young menhaden, which are small and low on the food chain, are chased and pushed into smaller bodies of water, like bayous by bigger, predator fish. It's a natural phenomenon in Louisiana during the summer months."

Wallace at Daybrook said "I read the news reports about biologists relating the kill to low oxygen, but anecdotally our boat captains said they saw oil near those inlets." Wallace said he is not in a position to assess what caused the kills, however.

P.J. Hahn, director of coastal zone management in Plaquemines Parish, said that fish kills occur in the summer. "But I'm a fisherman, and me and folks who live here thought that the September kills were unusually large in size. Another unusual thing was that, among the many dead menhaden, there were also trout and red fish -- which normally swim with the current and aren't typically found to a large extent in kills."

Hahn added "I took photographs of the Plaquemines kills and they show oil."

At the Louisiana Dept. of Wildlife and Fisheries, spokeswoman Olivia Watkins said biologists from her agency found that low levels of dissolved oxygen were responsible for kills in the Tiger Pass/Chaland Pass region and in Bayou Chaland in September. That area of water is isolated during periods of low tide, she noted. "And in one case in particular, there was a rock dam on one end and a shallow pass into the Gulf of Mexico on the other," she said. "Low tide kept the fish trapped in the body of water, without access to the Gulf, limiting the available, dissolved oxygen and killing the fish."

Watkins said that kills over a two-week span in September occurred in the same area. "Obviously, the area was heavily impacted by the oil spill, and there were extended closures in the area for fishing and oyster harvesting. However, we can't say for sure whether or not oil was in some way linked to the low levels of dissolved oxygen." She said her agency could confidently say, however, that the kills were caused by low, dissolved oxygen.

Gaude said he has seen no evidence to refute the theory that large September fish kills in Plaquemines Parish were the result of low oxygen. "If you want to photograph oiled fish and wildlife in Louisiana, you can find examples, but that doesn't necessarily mean that oil killed large numbers," he said."We won't know whether the oil spill affected the Gulf menhaden population until next year's harvest is over in the fall."

Looking ahead, Richard Condrey, Louisiana State University professor of oceanography and coastal sciences, said basic physiology suggests that the reproductive capabilities of a wide variety of marine life were affected by oil treated with chemical dispersants. Condrey is concerned that valuable time to study the spill's impacts on marine life has already been lost, and he points to a dearth of planned, ecological research in offshore Gulf waters of less than 20 fathoms.

Meanwhile, menhaden fishing and processing remain a well-capitalized industry. Landry at Omega Protein said "we operate 18 fishing boats in Louisiana and another nine in Mississippi, for a total of 27 in the Gulf. We also operate three run boats taking the catch from fishing boats to plants." Omega Protein owns 20 spotter planes looking for large schools of menhaden that appear silvery on the water's surface. Daybrook uses planes to find schools, too.

"We kept all of our fishermen employed throughout the spill, even when the boats were tied up at the docks because of the fishing closures," Landry said. Meanwhile in Plaquemines, Wallace said Daybrook this summer lost some key employees, who signed on with BP to do oil-cleanup work. Both Daybrook and Omega Protein filed with Kenneth Feinberg's Gulf Coast Claims Facility or oil-spill compensation fund, the companies said.

After being pulled from the Gulf of Mexico, menhaden is processed into byproducts that make their way throughout the nation and the world. Landry said "our main products are fish meal and fish oil, used as high-protein feed in livestock, dairy and aquaculture rations. Roughly 80% of the fish consumed in the U.S. is now farm raised. We sell fish meal and oil to aquaculture farms in Asia and Europe." His company also supplies growing demand for disease-fighting, Omega-3 food supplements, along with the expanding market for fish oil and meal in food.

In a Catch-22, Gaude said Louisiana sends menhaden meal to be fed to catfish in Asia. Asian catfish is exported to the U.S. and competes with the south Louisiana product in grocery stores.

"Fish oil and meal are a cutthroat, global business, with competition from Peruvian anchovies and herring from northern Europe," Gaude said. The byproducts are to a certain extent interchangeable, and for buyers it's like shopping for tires, he said. "You look for good performance at the lowest price."