MOBILE, Alabama – For consumers, the health of the Gulf fish population influences more than the price of a fried shrimp basket or the availability of a buttery plate of grouper.
In the wake of the BP oil spill, scientists are closely monitoring the unassuming menhaden — more commonly known as pogy — which has wound its way into a web of products on dry land.
Millions of pounds of the shiny, oily fish are hauled from the Gulf each year, processed into meal and oils that end up in food for pets, dairy cows and farm-raised salmon, fish oil pills and butter substitutes on the grocery shelf.
A nitrogen-rich liquid leftover from cooking and draining menhaden even fertilizes orange trees on Florida citrus farms, according to one major processor.
“Chances are, you’re encountering menhaden products in your everyday life,” said Ben Landry, spokesman for Omega Protein, which operates 4 menhaden processing plants in the U.S., including one in Moss Point.
Federal scientists say fish and marine mammals are capable of metabolizing oils and getting rid of them, unlike a substance such as mercury, which accumulates throughout the food chain.
“This was a deepwater spill,” said Steve Wilson, chief quality officer for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s seafood inspection program. “In general, the fish tended to avoid the area, or when they did swim through, they did not maintain that contamination for long at all — at most, two days.”
Like other species, harvested menhaden are undergoing a 2-step testing process, with officials both smelling the catch and testing for chemicals.
Wilson said because tests of menhaden — which tend to move around and swim away from problems in the water — have been favorable, there is even less concern over the products that are made from the fish.
About 1.4 billion pounds of menhaden were caught in the Gulf last year, according to federal statistics. A majority of the harvest came off the coasts of Mississippi and Louisiana, with fewer captured along Alabama and Texas, according to the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission.
Omega Protein uses spotter planes to locate schools in the water, and ships venture out with nets to scoop them up using what’s known as a purse seine.
As many as 6 million fish are processed at the Moss Point plant in a single day, company officials said.
It lists among its customers Hill’s Science Diet, a pet food producer; Smart Balance, maker of butter blends; and agriculture industry giants Cargill and Archer Daniels Midland, according to a June 2010 company presentation filed with the Securities and Exchange Commission.
Landry said that in addition to state and federal sampling, Omega Protein has conducted its own tests of both the menhaden catch and its processed products. He said the company found no problems, even at the height of the spill.
In some cases, Omega Protein’s customers have even done their own testing, he said.
“Nothing came back that would cause any concern either in our own testing or state or federal government testing,” Landry said. “The products we’re making are completely safe.”
Scientists say the key concern is not contamination, but whether the menhaden population overall will decline after the Gulf oil spill.
Joseph Smith, a fisheries biologist at NOAA’s Beaufort Laboratory in North Carolina, said that within a natural system, there can be shifts in numbers. “The question is,” he said, “will we see a change in this stock that’s above and beyond the normal, natural variability in stock size?”
If menhaden died off, the damage could ripple toward consumers.
The fish meal and oil industry overall has supplied protein for poultry feeds, additives in cosmetics, and materials for industrial lubricants.
Government regulators say Gulf menhaden are not overfished, though scientists have questioned the possible impact of removing so many from the Gulf ecosystem each year.
Menhaden are among the most important prey items in the Gulf, consumed by dozens of different species including bigger fish and sea birds. They swim in massive schools and filter feed plankton from the water.
Landry said a significant portion of the available fishing grounds in the Gulf were shutdown in mid-July and began reopening in mid-August.
“Honestly, the population, as reported by our spotter planes and our captains has been that there are a tremendous amount of fish out there,” he said. “Now again, this is anecdotal, but a lot of these captains have 30-plus years experience…We’re hearing there’s a lot out there.”
The commercial fishing season closes Nov. 1 — as menhaden begin their critical spawning season.