- Associated Press - Saturday, March 4, 2017

NEW ORLEANS (AP) - The Louisiana Wildlife and Fisheries Commission has declared an emergency so the state’s one menhaden bait boat can begin fishing two weeks early.

Louisiana Bait Products LLC officials say the emergency is that they’ve sold most of the 5,550 tons harvested last year, and don’t want to run out.

“We had a pretty start to the crawfish season, so we’ve been selling a lot of our offseason inventory this year,” agent Shawn Switzer said Thursday from the office in Abbeville.

Co-founder Daniel Edgar estimated Friday that Louisiana’s crawfish, crab and catfish industries use 37,500 to 50,000 tons of bait a year. Most is trucked in from Virginia, Maryland and New Jersey.

Menhaden, also called pogies, alewives, mossbunkers and a host of other names, are small fish that swim in huge schools. They’re an important part of the food chain, eating plankton and getting eaten by bigger fish.

More than 539,300 tons of Gulf menhaden were caught in the Gulf of Mexico and 200,900 tons of Atlantic menhaden were caught off the East Coast in 2015, according to NOAA Fisheries.

Louisiana, with 405,400 tons, had the biggest catch of the small fish. Virginia was next at 160,500 tons, and Mississippi third at 133,460 tons. They’re also caught in Alabama, Florida, and along the entire East Coast from Florida to Massachusetts.

Most of the menhaden is turned into fish meal and into oil for dietary supplements and other products, but bait has been taking an increasingly large percentage of the overall catch, according to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Pogies are too oily to be tasty to humans, but that very oiliness makes them a bait of choice for a wide variety of food and sport fish.

Edgar said Louisiana Bait Products, which opened in 2013 in Abbeville, is the only company freezing menhaden for bait on the Gulf Coast. Rather than freezing them in blocks, its fish are individually quick frozen. It received $1 million in startup money from the Louisiana Department of Wildlife and Fisheries; investors put in $4 million to $5 million, Edgar said.

The Gulf of Mexico commercial season runs from the third Monday in April through Nov. 1.

Louisiana allocates 3,000 tons for its November bait-only season. If that amount isn’t caught by Nov. 30, another bait-only season generally begins April 1.

“We are going to run out of bait before April,” Edgar said.

The commission voted Thursday to open this year’s bait season on March 15.

It’s impossible for one boat to catch 3,000 tons in a month, so there’s always an April season, said Switzer.

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