Spicy blackened redfish is the Cajun rage these days from the Hamptons to Grosse Pointe, and pointes beyond.
Around the Gulf of Mexico, where redfish is considered good sport and a tolerable eating fish, commercial fishermen are stampeding to cash in, and conservationists worry redfish are getting trampled.
So deep was the concern that Rep. John B. Breaux (D-La.) recently proposed legislation mandating a 90-day moratorium on redfishing in the Gulf, and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) responded by frantically working up emergency regulations, which it hopes to put in place July 1, to control the catch.
After New Orleans chef Paul Prudhomme took blackened redfish onto national TV and into his new restaurant in New York, dockside prices for whole redfish jumped from 30 cents a pound to $1.30. This was unprecedented money for the coarse-fleshed bottom feeder that northerners call "red drum" (no kin to the delectable red snapper).
The price jump sent good old boys from Louisiana, Alabama, Texas, Mississippi and Florida racing for their boats, and it seemed the more they caught, the more people wanted.
Commercial fishermen had to follow strict state conservation laws in the traditional redfish grounds, which are in state territorial waters within three miles of shore. But when a mother lode of big redfish was found far out in the Gulf a couple of years ago, in federal waters where no redfish restrictions exist, the rush was on.
The offshore catch in the Gulf jumped from under 300,000 pounds in 1983 to about 3 1/2 million pounds last year, as spotter planes led big purse-seining ships, which net fish by encircling them, to schools of 20- to 25-pound reds. This year, in just six months, 5.2 million pounds of offshore-caught redfish already has come to market.
The concern of Breaux, the NMFS, the Washington-based Sport Fishing Institute (SFI) and others, including Prudhomme, who testified at a congressional hearing last week, is that the mad dash for cash could decimate redfish stocks and damage the fishery for years.
"It's certainly cause for alarm," said Paul Lindall, the NMFS southeast regional fisheries operations chief, "because these are our brood fish -- our spawners. The fishery is expanding faster than our knowledge of what the resource can bear. The question is, how many fish are out there and just how much pressure can they take? We don't know."
Added NMFS Acting Deputy Jim Douglas, "Redfish are a long-lived fish that doesn't even enter the commercial fishery until about age 4 or 5 . . . . you can take a high percentage of the available resource on a short-lived species, like shrimp, and they'll come back the next year. But long-lived species don't repopulate so quickly, and you have to be careful."
A spokesman for Breaux said the congressman was distressed that NMFS had done nothing to stem the fishing barrage, and introduced the moratorium proposal last month "as a hammer" to get NMFS moving. "Evidently it worked," he said. "They announced they were working on emergency regulations two days before we held our hearings in New Orleans last week."
Now the question is, what kind of regulations will NMFS propose?
No one is talking at NMFS, which is part of the Commerce Department, but SFI Vice President Norville Prosser said rumors are the agency is considering a cap on Gulf-caught redfish of 5 million to 8 million pounds a year, which he considers way too high.
"There's no understanding of the population of these fish to back up any cap," said SFI economics chief David Rockland. "Our feeling, and the sense of the experts we've consulted, is to close it entirely, or at least hold it way back until you know what's out there."