Despite spirited opposition from workers in the menhaden industry, the Committee on Natural Resources and Environment in Louisiana’s House of Representatives moved HB 535 one step closer to becoming law yesterday.
The bill advanced from the committee by a 10-4 vote and will move to the House floor for debate. If passed, the bill would create “exclusion zones” along the Louisiana coast in which the commercial harvest of menhaden, aka pogeys, is prohibited.
Menhaden are a vital food source for Louisiana’s speckled trout and redfish populations, as well as many other species of fish, aquatic mammals and shorebirds.
Proponents of the measure argue that the bill will reduce the by-catch of desirable species.
Rep. Joe Orgeron of Golden Meadow, who sponsored the bill, said in his closing remarks: “I’ve come to the conclusion that my bill is probably the best compromise to put some absolute, minimalistic regulatory guardrails on this industry in order to balance the needs of both this industry, and the people who make use of the gamefish and recreational anglers and everybody who calls Louisiana a ‘sportsman’s paradise.’”
The unregulated commercial harvest of menhaden has long been a simmering issue among environmental activists and recreational fisherman.
In a May 4 press release, the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana (CCA-Louisiana), backed the bill.
“HB 535 will provide much needed protection from industrial menhaden fishing for our surf zone, the sensitive, shallow waters along our shorelines where many of our favorite fish species and iconic Louisiana wildlife spawn, nest and feed,” CCA Louisiana’s press release said. “Recreational fishing in Louisiana is a multi-billion-dollar industry, over $3 billion to be exact. We support thousands of businesses, nearly 24,000 jobs across Louisiana, and bring visitors to our great state from around the world. More importantly, fishing is a staple of our way of life, and an undeniable cornerstone of the Louisiana experience.”
The bill would create a ½-mile buffer zone along the coast, with extended zones in key areas, including a 3-mile exclusion zone around Grand Isle, where commercial boats could not operate.
“The way pogey is fished, and its occurrence within some of the most fertile waters for a variety of fish, there is a significant by-catch resulting in harm to many of Louisiana’s favorite recreational fish — approximately 135,000 pounds of trout and redfish specifically each year — and harm to forage for many of our most iconic Louisiana birds and wildlife like brown pelicans,” CCA Louisiana said.
The measure was passed out of committee despite steadfast resistance from Rep. Mack Cormier of Belle Chase, who warned throughout yesterday’s proceedings of the loss of jobs that could result if HB 535 is passed.
If you drove 10 miles to work, he said, “and somebody told you that you were going to make the same amount of money, but now you would have to drive 20 miles to work, would you consider making some changes because of the gas you have to pay?”
Spokesmen for the menhaden industry asserted that the passage of the bill will require firms to eliminate personnel to avoid going out of business.
David Yates, a boat pilot with Westbank Fishing, said: “We don’t often get within a half-mile of the beach, but at times we do. We don’t like to because there are hangs.”
“Pogeys get in close to the beach when it gets hot,” Yates said, “and we have to go try to get them.”
The menhaden fishery
Yates and others who oppose the bill dismiss statements that non-target fish populations are harmed by current methods of menhaden harvest.
“I mean, we see huge schools of redfish at times,” Yates said, “I don’t see how we’re hurting them. (Sportfishermen) will post videos of all of the specks that they are catching and accuse us of killing them all.”
Patrick Banks, assistant secretary with the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries’ Office of Fisheries, said the menhaden fishery was in good shape and, from his standpoint, by-catch does not appear to be a problem.
“The menhaden resource is in very good shape,” Banks said. “We’re a part of a group that does stock assessments through Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, as well as industry members and NOAA scientists, and (the menhaden) resource is in a very healthy condition.”
Footage of the May 12 committee meeting can be found at LA House On-Demand Video (louisiana.gov) .