Pogie buffer battle continues

Sportsmen say more protection needed from menhaden harvest

In its January, 2022 meeting, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission voted to amend a previous Notice of Intent (NOI), reducing Louisiana coastal buffer zones to Gulf menhaden harvest regulations. The latest amendment removes the previously proposed ¼ mile buffer on the outside of the double-rig line within Breton and Chandeleur Sounds that was part of the NOI submitted at its October, 2021 meeting.

The direction of the buffer zone discussions concerns many of the state’s leading conservation and fishing groups.

Strip mining pogies

“Unsurprisingly, once again, you were ignored,” Louisiana Coastal Conservation Association (CCA) CEO David Cresson said in a Jan. 7, 2022 letter to his group’s members. “Despite hundreds of comments from anglers, legislators, charter captains, coastal businesses and conservation organizations, the Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission unanimously moved forward with an inadequate ¼ mile buffer where menhaden reduction harvest will be restricted and went further to remove any buffer from harvesting in Breton Sound.

“In effect, the results allow those foreign companies to legally strip mine Louisiana’s surf-zones of hundreds of millions of pounds of forage fish and millions of pounds of bycatch — with no consideration for the ecosystem,” Cresson’s letter continued. “The commission took the side of the foreign pogie companies ahead of Louisiana, its people and its coastal resources. The vote to remove any restriction in Breton Sound was especially convenient for the Mississippi pogie fleet, which takes a significant percentage of their harvest from Louisiana.”

A quarter mile is roughly the length of four football fields.

The LDWF defended Commission actions through LDWF Press Secretary Ed Pratt and LDWF staff, providing the following responses to questions posed by Louisiana Sportsman magazine.

“Currently, there is no buffer in place under state law or administrative rule, so this Notice of Intent proposes to establish a buffer zone for the commercial menhaden fishery off of the Louisiana coastline where one did not previously exist,” the LDWF spokesman said. “The Notice of Intent proposes an administrative rule to place a ¼ mile buffer around the entire Louisiana coast, with larger buffers in some areas such as off of Grand Isle. The proposed buffer in the original Notice of Intent included an area in Breton and Chandeleur Sounds, as well as one further to the east off of the Chandeleur Islands. It was the portion of the proposed buffer within the Breton and Chandeleur Sounds that was removed from the Notice of Intent.”

The LWDF spokesman said sportsmen’s comments were not ignored.

“Sportsmen asked for a restriction of commercial menhaden fishing off of the Louisiana coastline,” he said. “Many of them requested a ½ mile restriction where currently no restriction is in place. The Commission has chosen to propose a ¼ mile restriction. The Sportsmen further requested that larger restrictions be placed on the waters off of the Grand Isle area, and the Commission agreed with that request, and has proposed expanded restrictions of between 1 and 3 miles in those areas. The bottom line is that without this NOI, there would be no restriction on menhaden fishing off of our coastline.”

More protection needed

Cresson says more protection, not less, is needed.

“The menhaden industry uses large ships and enormous purse seine nets (up to 1500 feet long) to capture nearly a billion pounds of pogies annually from our waters, along with tens of millions of pounds of what they call by-catch — sport fish that are unintentionally caught in the nets,” said Cresson. “According to industry reps, their ships draw up to 12 feet of water, yet they operate in waters as shallow as 5-6 feet deep. On many occasions, they have been observed churning up sediment, and leaving countless dead redfish and other species in their wake.”

Cresson said biologists don’t even have any real scientific data on how the removal of so much critical forage and bycatch from such a small strip of Louisiana’s coastline impacts species that depend on menhaden. Species like speckled trout, redfish, cobia, tarpon, snapper, tuna and more as well as a wide variety of marine birds and mammals rely on pogies.

LDWF responded that they will be performing a bycatch study of the commercial menhaden industry and the results of that study could result in the Commission adding protections along the Louisiana coastline. No time frame for the study was given.

Other states have been aggressive in their protection efforts regarding menhaden harvesting. Florida does not allow any purse seines in state waters. Alabama has a one mile menhaden buffer zone. Mississippi has one mile buffers in some coastal counties. Texas has a ½ mile buffer and a highly restrictive harvest limit, Cresson said.

The next step

The next step involves a public hearing, scheduled for February 22, 2022, at 5:30 p.m. at LDWF headquarters in the Joe Herring Room at 2000 Quail Drive, Baton Rouge, LA 70898. Results from the public hearing will be presented to the Commission on March 3. If the Commission chooses to move the latest proposed rule towards final promulgation at its March meeting, the proposed rule will move to Legislative oversight. Following the 30-day oversight period, the proposed rule could be published as a final rule as soon as April 20.

Cresson said more than 500 comments were sent in on the previous NOI. He urged sport fishing and conservation enthusiasts to not give up on this crucial issue. He suggested continuing to send in comments and to take it one step further and contact their legislators.

“If you love Louisiana’s outdoors, then you need to reach out to your state representatives and state senators and let them know this is an important issue for Louisiana’s coast,” Cresson said. “Even if you don’t live on the coast, your voice matters. It does have to go to legislative oversight and we need all the support we can get there. If the commission isn’t for the resource, let’s make sure our elected officials are.”

Louisiana Sportsman will continue to keep readers updated on the latest news in this continuing controversy.

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