The waters of Louisiana are generous, yielding about 65 million pounds of shrimp, eight million pounds of crawfish and three million pounds of oysters in 2020.
But the biggest catch is menhaden. In 2020, boats hauled in about nine times more menhaden than shrimp.
If your appreciation for seafood comes from the tip of a fork rather than the business end of a fishing pole, you’ve probably never heard of menhaden, also called pogy.
The fish are bony and oily and small, about the size of a dollar bill.
Even Paul Prudhomme could not have made pogy into a delicacy. So the value of the state’s shrimp crop exceeds the value of its menhaden, even though boats hauled in more than 600 million pounds of menhaden in 2020.
Menhaden chiefly winds up in fertilizer and pet food and livestock feed, but some may arrive unknowingly in human stomachs as an ingredient of granola bars, pasta sauce, and margarine.
"They’re nasty," said Skyler Sagarese, a research scientist with the National Oceanic and Atmosphere Administration. "They’re pretty much all oil."
But pogy were in the news last week when a boat netting the species dumped 900,000 dead fish in the Gulf of Mexico near Holly Beach in Cameron Parish.
Omega Protein, which operates a processing plant in Abbeville, said it was forced to abandon its catch after one of its nets overfilled. The seine was so overloaded that the captain determined it could not be safely handled, company spokesman Ben Landry said.
"We’ve been experiencing some really, really big schools down in southwest Louisiana," Landry said. "The captain thought he brought back 500,000 pounds. Turns out it was more than that."
Most of the fish were dead by the time the captain abandoned his catch.
But while pogy are not appealing to the human palate, they play a key role in Louisiana’s fisheries as a fat-rich energy source for preferred species, like redfish and trout.
"They’ve been described as the most important fish in the sea," said Sagarese. "Almost every predator — marine mammals, birds, sea turtles and (bigger) fish — eats them."
So the industrial-scale harvesting of menhaden has become a flashpoint in the ongoing dispute between commercial and recreational fishers, traditional rivals over the bounty of Louisiana’s waters.
Indeed, when Omega Protein abandoned its catch, anglers spotted dead redfish floating among the menhaden, and photos of the fish began appearing on social media.
"We must continue to shine a light on this industry and the damage being caused to our fisheries, our coastal wildlife, and our critical habitats,"the Coastal Conservation Association of Louisiana said in an email to its members.
Other Gulf Coast states have stricter rules for menhaden harvesting, but Louisiana’s Department of Wildlife and Fisheries was unconcerned about last week’s mishap.
"A couple of million extra is insignificant," said Jason Adriance, a fisheries manager for the agency.
Menhaden processing is an industry that employs hundreds. But the state should not lose sight of the fact that recreational fishing provides thousands of jobs.
The dispute comes at a time when some anglers are finding it harder to catch redfish, and Wildlife and Fisheries has responded by doing an assessment of the fishery.
Does Louisiana need to do more to protect redfish, and if so, does the problem relate to lax rules for harvesting pogy? Science and data will tell us the answer.