Record Gulf Catch… But There’s a Catch

Menhaden reduction fishery in the Gulf. Photo courtesy Craig HuchinsonRecently, headlines loudly proclaimed great news in the fish harvest totals released by NOAA for 2011. “Gulf seafood catch reaches 12-year high”, “Louisiana seafood catch rebounds in 2011” & “U.S. seafood landings reach 17-year high in 2011”. Wow, sounds great. Unfortunately, digging beneath the headlines reveals a less glowing report from Gulf waters.The most significant increase in Gulf catch comes from the uncontained, uncapped, Gulf menhaden harvest. Going from 900 million pounds on average for the past 10 years, they lept to 1.3 billion pounds in 2011. In other species, catch totals weren’t nearly so rosy. Louisiana oysters were significantly off their ten year average, Louisiana white and brown shrimp were similarly off their 10 year average. Louisiana blue crab were down from their 10 year average. In Mississippi, things were so bleak that a federal fisheries disaster was declared for their oyster and crab fisheries. Before we sound the ‘all clear’ we also need to remember, that due to cascading sub-lethal impacts, it wasn’t until four seasons after the Exxon Valdez spill that the Prince William Sound herring fishery collapsed.So yes, bouyed by an enormous menhaden catch, which is a high-volume, low-value fishery, the Gulf’s totals were increased, but whereever BP’s oil impacts were signficant, shrimp and crab harvests were off their ten year average.The AP told this story well ahead of these rosy headlines last year, when they analyzed catch information for specific areas, and warned that problems were afoot. Oh, and about that menhaden harvest? We’ve advocated for years that the fishery go through an actual ecosystem assesment, and set a science-based catch limit which takes into account how incredibly valuable those fish are to the rest of the Gulf’s marine wildlife. A recent scientific study recommends considerably more agressive managment of ‘forage fish’ species such as menhaden, cutting catch rates in half to protect their larger and more valuable role as food for high value fisheries.Turning a record amount of that fish into dogfood or fishfood for aquaculture really doesn’t strike me as a reason for celebration. Especially as shrimpers are still struggling, and the final impacts of the BP disaster are far from determined. Make sure to watch our newest episode of our ongoing video series Gulf Tides right now. It delves into the murky issue of the marine impacts of the BP disaster, and what can and should be done to help restore the critical blue-water environment. Aaron Viles is GRN’s deputy director. You can follow him on twitter here.

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