First, the “spotter” plane appears soaring above the warm waters of the Gulf of Mexico. Inside the pilot is scanning the water, searching for a characteristic dark, writhing mass: a school of menhaden. Spotting the school, the pilot radios a nearby mothership to relay the news. This large vessel races to the scene and rapidly lowers two smaller boats into the water. They quickly go to work surrounding the menhaden school in a large purse seine net and, after the school is secured, the factory boat vacuums the net clean – transporting thousands of pounds of fish into its hold. This process continues until the entire bay or sound is stripped of the once-teaming schools of menhaden, and the dolphins, pelicans, and other marine wildlife must look elsewhere for their food.Menhaden, which are also known as pogies, are a small, oily bait fish which schools in huge numbers in the Gulf of Mexico. Few people, with the exception of fishermen, have ever even heard of menhaden, but they are an essential part of the eco-systems of the Atlantic coast and the Gulf. In fact, Princeton professor H. Bruce Franklin went so far as to title his book on menhaden The Most Important Fish in the Sea. These small fish, which are filter-feeders, provide a crucial link between the primary producers of energy – plants – and the upper levels of the food chain including red drum, sharks, dolphins, pelicans, and host of other sea life.Unfortunately, pogies are also big business with just two companies – Omega Protein and Daybrook Fisheries – harvesting an average of one billion pounds of menhaden from the Gulf of Mexico each year. They don’t put menhaden on ice and sell them at the fish market, instead, they grind them up, and turn them into industrial products that are then turned into things such as dog, cat and fish food. In the process, they accidently capture and kill at least ten million pounds of other sea life, like sharks, red drum and tarpon. In fact, one Louisiana fisheries biologist has suggested that the industry could be killing as many as 850,000 sharks every year.The menhaden industry was originally based along the Atlantic coast of the United States. However, as the menhaden populations range shrunk and fishermen began pointing to problems with the health of other marine wildlife which rely on menhaden, many of the Atlantic states stepped in to better regulate the industry. Now, the Gulf of Mexico is ground zero for the menhaden boats and without improved management of the fishery, the entire Gulf coast economy and ecosystem could be affected.In fact, the menhaden reduction industry operates in Mississippi and Louisiana without any catch limits and few controls on the amount and kind of other species they capture. To help combat this threat, a group of conservationist, recreational fishermen and concerned business leaders have joined together to form the Save the Bait Coalition of Mississippi. They’ve been working aggressively to convince the Mississippi Commission on Marine Resources, the regulatory body that oversees the fishery, to support commonsense regulations for the menhaden industry. You can take action now by visiting this page, or read a little more about the issue and check out a video about the pogie industry here.Raleigh Hoke is the Mississippi Organizer with the Gulf Restoration Network.