Southern Menhaden May Find Their Place in Maine Lobster Fishery

The Gulf of Mexico menhaden stock is robust. Much of the harvest goes to fish meal and oil. Photo courtesy of Menhaden Fisheries Coalition.

You can’t help loving a menhaden, at least if you’re a lobsterman. Plump, full of fat, a nice oily fish that schools in the thousands along the East Coast each summer. Atlantic menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) are harvested to become fish meal, oil and lobster bait. This year Maine lobstermen are waiting anxiously for the annual menhaden migration to arrive in the Gulf of Maine to supplement the scanty supply of herring available for bait.

But there’s another type of menhaden, Brevoortia patronus, that lives its life in the Gulf of Mexico. The fish are caught by vessels operating out of Texas and Louisiana and used as bait in the blue crab, crayfish, and eel fisheries as well as by sport fishermen targeting king mackerel, red drum, sharks and tunas. The majority of the catch, however, is landed by vessels in the “reduction” fishery, which catch the fish to be processed for fish oil and meal. The interstate fish stock is managed by the Gulf of Mexico Marine Fisheries Commission and, as of its last stock assessment in 2015, the Commission concluded that menhaden is not overfished nor is overfishing occurring. Furthermore, the Gulf of Mexico menhaden fishery achieved recognition by the Marine Stewardship Council as a sustainable fishery in 2018, attesting to the health of the stock and its management.

Until April of this year, however, Gulf of Mexico menhaden was not an approved bait for Maine lobster and crab fishermen. It took pressure this spring from South Thomaston lobsterman David Cousens and other midcoast lobstermen to push the Department of Marine Resources (DMR) to give that approval. “I said that we needed to get the stuff approved,” Cousens explained. “We could have multiple trucks coming up here every week!” DMR added Gulf of Mexico menhaden in mid-April to its list of approved baits, but only as a frozen product.

Maine’s bait suppliers traditionally get Atlantic menhaden from companies operating in New Jersey and Virginia. To supplement that supply, however, small wharves and lobster cooperatives are making contact independently with companies harvesting the Gulf of Mexico menhaden.

Most processors operating in the Gulf of Mexico, such as giant Omega Protein, catch menhaden to convert into fish meal and oil. A few smaller companies, such as Louisiana Bait Products, process the fish for the bait market. Louisiana Bait Products produced 10 million pounds of menhaden in 2016, harvested by its purse seine boat. The fish are Individually Quick Frozen (IQF) in two brine freezing tanks, then delivered by company trucks. One midcoast lobsterman, who asked to remain anonymous, is excited by the volume of menhaden Louisiana Bait Products can produce. “They’ve got freezers to store the menhaden but when they are full, they have to stop fishing until they are empty,” the lobsterman said, adding that the company is ready to send trucks to Maine when that happens.

Unlike the dismal forecast for the Atlantic herring fishery, the Gulf of Mexico menhaden fishery remains robust. “The oil boats [reduction fishery fishing vessels] landed more last year than we used for bait all year,” the midcoast lobsterman commented. With the recent approval of the fish for Maine lobster bait, there is the potential that more boats will move into the bait fishery in that region. Total menhaden landings in 2017 were 460,700 metric tons, according to National Marine Fisheries Service records. The amount landed by bait vessels was about 2% of that total, according to the Gulf of Mexico Marine Fisheries Commission.

If an appetite develops among Maine lobstermen for southern menhaden, the Gulf states may see an uptick in the number of vessels fishing solely for the bait market.