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Sea Change

Redfish Blues

Longtime chef Fred Brigsten cooks the classic Louisiana dish: blackened redfish. He demonstrates in the kitchen of his New Orleans restaurant, Brigsten's.
Boyce Upholt
Food and Environment Reporting Network
Longtime chef Fred Brigsten cooks the classic Louisiana dish: blackened redfish. He demonstrates in the kitchen of his New Orleans restaurant, Brigsten's.

Today, we hear the story of one fish and its journey to fame: the red drum, or more commonly known as the classic redfish. And whether the decline of this fish is a warning of a bigger collapse.

This episode was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization. This episode was reported and hosted by Boyce Upholt. Halle Parker introduces the show. The episode was edited by Carlyle Calhoun and Morgan Springer. Our managing producer is Carlyle Calhoun. Emily Jankowski is our sound designer, and our theme music is by Jon Batiste. Sea Change is a WWNO and WRKF production.

To check out more of Boyce's work: Pick up a copy of his new book about the Mississippi River, coming out in June. It’s called The Great River. And, find other stories on his Substack called Southlands.

Sea Change is made possible with major support from the Gulf Research Program of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. WWNO’s Coastal Desk is supported by the Walton Family Foundation, the Meraux Foundation, and the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

You can reach the Sea Change team at seachange@wwno.org.


Note: Transcripts are produced by a third-party transcription service and may contain errors (including name spellings). Please be aware that the official record for our episodes is the audio version.

<<music bed>

HALLE: You’re listening to Sea Change. I’m Halle Parker, and today, we’re talking all about the story of one fish and its journey to fame. The red drum, more commonly known as the classic redfish. And whether the decline of this fish is a warning of a bigger collapse. Today on Sea Change, we dive into these redfish blues with Boyce Upholt, a reporter for the Food & Environment Reporting Network based in New Orleans. based in New Orleans. He takes it from here.

Ambi: car keys, etc.

Boyce: Last November, on a gloomy morning, I wake before dawn to catch a fish.

Chris Macaluso: Hopefully we’re not gonna go too far today. I'm gonna poke around in some spots where I usually catch a few redfish trout.

Let's kind of see what's going on.

Nat sound of boat motor

Boyce: I mostly write about nature, and I spend a lot of time outside. But I’m not much of a fisherman. So I’ve recruited a guide for this adventure.

Chris Macaluso: My name is Chris Macaluso and, uh, I am, well, you know, lifetime Louisiana native.

Boyce: Chris is also the Marine Fisheries Director for the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. It's an organization that tries to guarantee all Americans quality places to hunt and fish.

I'm determined to catch a red drum. That’s what scientists call it. You may know it by the name more common with fishermen: a redfish. This is an animal that’s been in the news lately – for a few reasons. One is that it’s an incredibly popular gamefish. It’s key to the state's billion-plus dollar sportfishing industry.

Chris Macaluso: So I mean it's just a fascinating fish and they fight so hard. You know, I mean, they just battle like crazy.

Boyce: Redfish is also among the most famous of New Orleans cooking ingredients. I remember when I moved here, one of my first meals was at an old-school Italian joint near my new house. I ordered a redfish po’ boy – a virtuous, local meal. Or so I thought at the time.

I’ve learned a lot about this fish since eating that sandwich. To be honest, I’ve become a bit obsessed with redfish. Which is why I’m out here, trying to catch one.

Chris Macaluso: It ain't gonna take us two minutes to start fishing.

Boyce: That’s great.

Boyce: Chris and I are on Lake St. Catherine. It’s an hour from downtown New Orleans. A wide-open stretch of water speckled with little islands of marsh grass. It's supposed to be a hotspot for catching redfish.

Nat sound of casting

And sure, within two minutes, we're casting. But that doesn't mean anything is biting.

More nat sound of casting

Two hours pass. Eventually, we change locations and change the bait. Chris ties on a plastic shrimp with a garlic stink to it.

Chris Macaluso: Caught a lot of fish on this bait the other day.

Boyce: Today, though, that doesn't seem to be helping.

Maybe that’s fitting: for several years now, Louisiana has been suffering what I've come to think of as the redfish blues. Fishermen like Chris have been reporting tough times as they chase after redfish. When I heard this, I decided to dig in -- what was going on? I talked to scientists...

Patrick Banks: the politics of fish in this state have trumped the science, and that is sad.

I talked to chefs.

Frank Brigsten: Forget the politics. Forget the hate. Let's look at the facts here.

Boyce: And maybe you can see why I got so obsessed. POLITICS? HATE? Over a fish? I quickly learned that the redfish story goes deep -- that it's not just about biology and conservation. It's about local cultures and local cuisines. It's about an important question here in Louisiana: what should our relationship be with our coastal waters?

After the break, I’ll consider that question -- by telling the tale of the redfish blues.

[Sponsorship break]

II. Blackened Redfish

Ambi: knocking on door

Boyce: To understand the story of redfish, I knew there was someone I had to talk to.

Frank Brigsten: Boyce, Frank Brigtsen.

Boyce: Thank you for having us.

Frank Brigsten: Of course.

Boyce: Delighted to be here.

Frank Brigsten: Delighted too.

Boyce: I’m at Brigtsen's restaurant, which is tucked into an old house in New Orleans. Its chef and owner Frank Brigtsen walks me into his noisy kitchen for a cooking lesson.

Frank Brigsten: I’m gonna do this redfish exactly the way we did it at K-Paul’s. We Served it very simply, no sauce or anything.

Boyce: People have been eating redfish for centuries -- probably millennia. One early twentieth century cookbook called it a "king" of the New Orleans French market. That may have had more to do with just how common redfish were, though, rather than its taste. When Frank Brigtsen began cooking, he says,

Frank Brigsten: It wasn't at the top of the list of desirable species in Louisiana. Uh, I mean, my father's generation, you know, they ate speckled trout, pompano, and red snapper.

Redfish was kind of a, you know, yeah, it's okay, but you wouldn't see it on restaurant menus.

Boyce: That would change thanks to a man named Paul Prudhomme. He made his name cooking at the venerable restaurant Commander’s Palace, and eventually, he decided to strike out on his own. Prudhomme opened a new restaurant in the French Quarter, which he called K-Paul’s. And he brought along Chef Frank as his right-hand man.

Frank Brigsten: It was 1979. I was the night chef, uh, with a helper and a dishwasher.

Boyce: Prudhomme, I should note, was one of the first great celebrity chefs in America.

Paul Prudhomme: I'll tell you, a great piece of fish is good cooking, good eating, and good lovin’. And we love you guys out there!

Boyce: People magazine called Prudhomme the “Guru of Gumbo.” He was the [00:06:00] “Cajun Buddha,” according to the New York Times. But he became most famous for his blackened redfish. Chef Frank remembers the night that dish was born in the early days of K-Paul's.

Frank Brigsten: And one day I was, um, getting ready to open the doors, you know, setting up my station and everything, and Chef Paul walked into the kitchen and just kind of moseyed over to my set up and, uh, took a piece of redfish, seasoned it, passed it through melted butter, and dropped it in a smoking hot cast iron skillet.

Boyce: Prudhomme's little experiment unleashed a great mess of smoke. Frank was, to put it lightly, skeptical.

Frank Brigsten: And then he turned the fish and I was even more skeptical. It was like blackened. And, uh, I'd never seen anything like it before. And then he, uh, put it on a plate and he said, here, Frank, taste this.

And I took the very first bite of blackened redfish at K-Paul's and I said, ‘This is the best damn fish I ever had in my life.’ And that was the start of it all.

Boyce: People were desperate to get into K-Paul’s. Prudhomme died in 2015. But he said those long lines of diners spilling out into the streets of the French Quarter – that was because of his blackened redfish.

The dish became a big enough deal that Cajun country music star Doug Kershaw released a song referencing it– and a video with shots of Chef Prudhomme, chuckling and pouring out martinis.

Doug Kershaw (singing): Eggplant, pirouge, a-crawfish etouffee, a blackened redfish, oh, that's the Cajun way,

Boyce: Back then, redfish were abundant in Louisiana's marshes. So [00:08:00] licensed commercial fishermen could catch and sell as many fish as they wanted. Sports fishermen did have a limit -- but it was still high. They could catch TWO HUNDRED fish every day.

But as Paul Prudhomme's fame spread outside Louisiana, so too did the reputation of this fish.

Frank Brigsten: The great thing is that it popularized Louisiana food,

Boyce: In the wake of Prudhomme’s rising celebrity, the hottest new restaurants, from New York to L.A. to Amsterdam -- they were serving Cajun food.

The demand for redfish wound growing so much, so quickly, that it soon became a problem

Frank Brigsten: And so I'm going to tell you, uh, sort of the end of my blacked redfish cycle. After five years, six years in, in K Paul's Kitchen,cChef moved me to purchasing. So I was the food buyer.

Boyce: On his first day in the role, Prudhomme took Frank out to meet the restaurant's seafood suppliers.

Frank Brigsten: the second one we went to gave us a tour of his plant and then we went and sat in his office and while we were sitting there, he got a phone call and the phone call went like this.

Yeah, okay, yeah, uh huh How big are they and how many pounds you think it is He said, okay, I'll take him and he hung up and sat back with a smug smile on his face.

Boyce: Hold the image of the smug smile, because to understand its significance, we have to get to know the redfish. These fish can live for 40 years in the Gulf, and wind up weighing 60 pounds or more. A full grown redfish is, truly, a beast -- and fittingly, they're often called "bull" reds.

And bull reds do something that sportsfishermen find entrancing: they swim in huge schools. You can see these fish from airplanes, if you fly low enough -- They give the water a reddish tint. The thing about [00:11:00] bull reds, though, is that they are not good eating. The flesh is coarse and fishy-tasting. A fishermen once told me that eating a bull red is like eating a truck.

Frank Brigsten: we never used bull redfish. Chef wanted a 10-ounce filet and that comes off a four-pound red fish.

If you wanted something tastier, you had to look closer to shore. After bull reds spawn, their eggs drift to the edge of the marsh, That’s where baby redfish start their lives. The reason why Louisiana had so many redfish is because we had so much marsh. And this is where most commercial fishermen worked. They were often alone, or in pairs, setting nets in the bayous.

But for some fishermen, those schools of big, bull reds offshore screamed profit. And the chefs in New York City didn't seem to notice the bad taste. The redfish had all that blackening seasoning, after all.

So a new kind of industry emerged in the Gulf of Mexico. "Spotter" airplanes flew offshore, watching for the schools. Then boats would scoop up hundreds of fish at once.

And that brings us back to that seafood warehouse, and Frank's supplier's smug smile. The man told the chefs he'd just been talking to his fishing fleet. And they'd successfully netted a school.

Frank Brigsten: And it was like 10,000 pounds of 30-pound redfish. When he said that, Paul's face went white. Ashen white. And I just about cried. We both did. It was a pivotal moment in our lives. He realized what it had all come to. Raping the resource. From the get go. To satisfy demand, selling this fish that we wouldn't eat.

Boyce: It was clear to the chefs that something had to change. Soon enough, it would become clear to the federal government, too. They scrambled for a solution. So -- how do you save redfish? That, as we'll see after the break, turns out to be a contentious question itself.


Boyce: As I tried to wrap my head around the history of redfish, I figured I ought to talk to one of the fishermen who had once supplied New Orleans restaurants. Eventually, I found one.

Robert Fritchey: Yeah, Robert Fritchey. I, uh, I'm 72, or I'll be 72 in December and, uh, I fished, uh, down in Louisiana through uh, the 1980s and, uh, 1990s.

Boyce: Robert is originally from Pennsylvania, and how he wound up a commercial fisherman could be a podcast episode all its own. The short version is that he came to New Orleans to study tropical medicine. But then, after a bad divorce and too many years in the classroom, he came up with a wild idea.

Robert Fritchey: Well, I think what I'll do, I'll move out into marsh in Louisiana and I'll get good enough that I'll go down to Belize and open a fishing camp down there. That was my original intention.

Boyce: Robert was 30, an angler, and his dream was to get better at sport fishing. Then he’d head to the Caribbean, to become a tropical fishing guide. So in 1980, he moved into a tent that he pitched in the marsh, miles from any town.

Robert Fritchey: I really, I liked the idea of just starting from flat zero.

Boyce: Eventually he moved into a shack with no power. He stayed out there for years.

Robert wrote a magazine story about his redfish adventure. He called it “Gentlemen Prefer Reds.”

But soon he realized he needed money to fuel his boat. And to make that money, he needed to catch a LOT of redfish. So he set down his rod and started fishing with a net. And to do that, he needed a commercial fishing license. This is an important distinction. Sportfishermen and commercial fishermen have always been very different groups. Now, without even realizing it, Robert had switched sides.

And It turned out he loved the work of commercial fishing. He was working the old-school way, in the marsh: no spotter planes, no massive boat. The way he describes it, it sounds kind of like a cowboy lifestyle, transferred to Cajun country: he had no boss, and he was living sustainably off the landscape.

Robert Fritchey: that's basically how I spent the eighties – was riding around, looking for redfish.

Boyce: This was the same decade that those big boats and spotter planes started prowling the offshore waters, though. Throughout that decade, Louisiana began to debate and pass new laws -- laws that protected redfish. And laws, therefore, that made it harder for Robert to catch fish and make a living.

Robert Fritchey: We didn't know what was happening. It's all these regulations were coming down on us and we're down the bayou, you don't know.

Boyce: Robert wanted to find out what was going on. So he took another writing gig — now with a magazine called National Fisherman. He’d become a kind of investigative journalist.

Robert Fritchey: And, uh, at one point they gave me the, uh, the funds to rent a car, they said, go down to Texas and talk to those guys.

Boyce: Down there in Texas, he found himself digging into what has become known as the Redfish Wars. This is why Texas mattered: because its commercial fishermen had dealt with something similar.

The wars had started back in the 1970s, after a group of 14 anglers gathered in a tackle shop in Houston. These guys were sport fishermen, and they were worried. Every time they found a promising school of redfish in Texas's marsh, the next thing they knew -- a commercial guy would be there, stringing up his net.

Troy Williamson: too damn many commercial fishermen and not enough resource to go around for them.

Boyce: Troy Williamson is an attorney and angler. And that’s him in interview from a documentary called "Redfish Revival" that was released last year. He's part of the group that formed in that Houston tackle shop, which eventually became known as the Coastal Conservation Association, the CCA. The CCA set out on a mission to protect the redfish. Or, that’s how they saw it.

Troy Williamson: At the beginning, it was not a popular issue and it took a lot of concentrated effort and it took a lot of money to sway the legislators.

Boyce: Things got pretty heated. I’m talking, commercial fishermen blockading ports with their boats, the Coast Guard blasting through with hoses.

Troy Williamson: People were having their lives threatened.

Back when I started this story, I said that the tale of the redfish blues raises questions about how we should relate to Louisiana's waters. The two sides in the Redfish Wars offer two different answers.

Let's start with the CCA, the sport fishermen: They consider the ocean a special place -- a spiritual place, nearly. Here's a CCA biologist quoted in that same documentary, talking about the 14 anglers who founded the group.

Documentary: … because they cared about that species. They loved catching it. eating them, taking their kids fishing, all the things that bring people to the coast. They didn't want that to go away.

Boyce: These guys argued that if the state kept letting commercial fishermen catch and sell redfish, the species would eventually get wiped out.

There was a more pragmatic argument, too: By the 1970s, sportfishing was a booming business. People bought boats and gas and fishing rods and sunglasses -- and all that shopping brought in a ton of money to the local economy. Way more money than commercial fishermen were contributing.

But Robert Fritchey doesn’t buy it. He’s the commercial fishermen investigating the rise in redfish regulations. He says this economic argument undercuts the idea that the ocean is some sacred place.

Robert Fritchey: it's all about consumption. I mean, to me, I find that obscene, 

Boyce: Robert, of course, represents the other side in this fight.

Robert says comparing the economics of sportfishing to commercial fishing is like comparing apples to oranges. He argues that commercial fishermen have to be as efficient as possible if they want to make good money. They CAN'T spend all their cash on things like sunglasses or fancy fishing rods. They’re motivated to save. And these savings are passed on to the customers buying fish.

He’s got a response to the more spiritual arguments, too: He actually LIVED out there in the marsh. He characterizes most of the guys who run the CCA as wealthy city dwellers, people who come to the coast just for fun. That makes them, in his view, tourists.

Robert Fritchey: and when you're a tourist, you don't care. 

Boyce: Clearly, Robert is skeptical of the anglers' claims that they are high-minded conservationists. Take the practice of catch and release. The idea is to set back loose what you hook so that the population can continue. But Scientists have found that more than 10% of redfish hooked and then released wind up dying anyway.

Despite such arguments, Robert's side – the commercial fishermen – lost that war in Texas. In 1981, the legislature passed a bill making it illegal to sell redfish. It was now a "gamefish," meaning it could only be caught for sport in Texas's marshes.

One of the key things to notice here is the TIMELINE -- the Redfish Wars began before Paul Prudhomme ever blackened a redfish. They were over before the dish exploded into all [00:23:00] those New York restaurants. That’s when the CCA, expanded, opening chapters across the Gulf coast.

Robert Fritchey, our commercial fisherman turned magazine writer, had set out to find where the restrictions in Louisiana were coming from -- and here was his answer: The CCA had brought the fight to his home state. A new iteration of the redfish wars broke out.

Newscast: redfish is a way of life to commercial fishermen. This week, they rallied against a bill to protect redfish, which they feared would wipe them out of existence. 

Boyce: When it came to those big bull reds, the federal government was already working to shut down the offshore fishery. But the fate of the smaller redfish in the marshes – that was up to the state of Louisiana. And here the problem was less obvious, more nuanced. Most years throughout the 1980s, commercial fishermen weren’t actually the ones catching the majority of the redfish in the Gulf's marshlands. It was the sportsmen. But the TV footage of those big boats slaughtering the schools of bull reds played into the sportfishermen’s fight. By the end of the decade, almost every Gulf state had made the redfish a gamefish. Just like in Texas. For all intents and purposes, the commercial harvest was over. Fishermen were dismayed by all these changes.

Old fisherman tape: There's no way we'll be able to ever make a living, any of us. You're gonna see more people on welfare and food stamps than you've ever seen in your life – and it’ll get worse.

Boyce: The sports fishermen and the CCA, kept gaining power. In the mid-1990s they launched a new campaign. They wanted to outlaw a key tool for commercial fishermen – gillnets.

By this point, Chef Frank had started his own restaurant – Brigtsen’s Restaurant, in that little house in New Orleans. He and Chef Prudhomme had supported banning the offshore commercial redfish harvest. But they were worried about this net ban -- and what impact it might have on their restaurants.

Frank Brigsten: We went up, he and I, to visit Governor Murphy Foster. And we sat in his office, and Chef, you know, kind of pleaded our case. Just like I described, you know, if the resource is healthy, isn't there a way we can share this? 

Boyce: Even state marine biologists said there were enough fish for commercial guys AND recreational guys. The ban was unnecessary.

Frank Brigsten: You know, not everybody's a fisherman, or fisherwoman.

Boyce: Here we come back again [00:26:00] to that central conflict of the whole redfish story -- the question of what is the best relationship with our water. Frank thinks commercial fishermen provide a key link. They bring fresh, local seafood to Louisianans who don’t fish; so they can experience and maybe even love the marshes. But the Governor was a sportfishermen, and he wasn't buying Frank's argument.

Frank Brigsten: He looked me dead in the eye and said, ‘You better get used to serving farm-raised fish.’

Boyce: Frank thinks he suffered repercussions for his outspokenness. A few weeks after that meeting, the state audited his restaurant, he says. And then, a few weeks after that, two characters showed up at his door, offering to sell him a truckload of fresh-caught Louisiana redfish. Frank declined to buy the fish – he had a clear opinion of what was up.

Frank Brigsten: It was a sting operation. Why play this dirty politics stuff with me? I'm an honest man, voicing my opinion – for the benefit of everyone in Louisiana, and our visitors that eat here. You're changing our cuisine, which is our culture.

Boyce: It was now illegal for fishermen to sell redfish, including to restaurants. So menus had to change. But… Frank had given me a redfish cooking lesson. Then he'd served me a blackened filet. It was mild, sweet, flaky – brightened up by all that spice. Where did it come from?

Boyce [tape]: But you still have redfish, blackened redfish on your menu, correct?

Frank Brigsten: We, we do serve redfish every day. Farm-raised Texas redfish.

Boyce: Don’t get me wrong, that fish he'd cooked was delicious. But it does seem ironic. The man who helped make redfish into an iconic international symbol of Louisiana now serves a farm-raised product that he imports from another state.


Boyce: So that brings us up to date: there is no fresh, wild-caught Louisiana redfish available at Brigtsen’s, or at any of this state’s restaurants or fish markets. The sports fishermen got their way. Even our license plates call it out: they say Louisiana is a Sportsman's Paradise.

I’ll be honest, when I got to this point in the redfish story, I was a bit dispirited. I thought of all of the tourists who are showing up at restaurants in the French Quarter. They order blackened redfish. They think they’re having some authentic experience. I mean, I did myself, with that redfish po’ boy I bought when I first moved to town. I thought I was connecting with my new home.

As Chef Frank expected, the commercial fishing industry in the state took a big hit after the net ban. You can still legally harvest some finfish in Louisiana. But state statistics show that in the two decades after the ban, the catch of a key species declined by nearly 75%. It's easy enough to find local shrimp and crabs and oysters for sale in New Orleans -- but Gulf of Mexico finfish? That has become a very rare thing

I should say, the decline of the fishing industry can't all be pinned on sportfishermen. In this same era, the U.S. began importing more and more seafood, which was sold at such low prices that locals in Louisiana couldn't compete. Here the redfish story intersects with another Louisiana crisis.

news cast: Scientists and geologists believe steps can be taken to stop coastal erosion, but as Ken Johnson tells us, so far there's been a lot of talk and not much action

Boyce: Louisiana's disappearing coast first became big news back in the 1970s. What we're losing is marsh, mostly. And it seemed immediately clear that if the marsh was declining, that should be bad news for the species that lived there – redfish, crabs, shrimp. But, weirdly, nothing bad seemed to happened - there was no ecosystem crash. In a paper published nearly two decades after the alarm sounded, a group of scientists conceded that fishermen were actually catching MORE shrimp.

The paper offered an explanation: Remember, redfish like to hang along the EDGE of the marsh. Shrimp do, too. And because the marsh was disappearing in bits and pieces, that was creating more edge -- so… the disappearing landscape was actually creating more habitat.

The paper made clear, though, that [00:32:00] eventually that would change. As more marsh vanished, instead of increasing, the length of the edge would begin to shrink. And THEN the collapse would come. So the scientists watched, and watched.

And then something happened.

Todd Masson: I'm not sure I've ever seen a decline in a fisheries population like what we're witnessing now, with redfish. I started noticing it about two years ago. I went two months without catching a single redfish . . .

Boyce: Todd Masson posted this video to his YouTube channel in 2022. When I came across it, I could not help but wonder if we’d finally crossed the threshold – if the marsh was tipping into its era of decline.

Todd: We must act. It's time for Louisiana to lower their redfish limit

BOYCE: Reports from fishermen like Todd caught the attention of the state's department of wildlife and fisheries, too. They began a new study of redfish. So I called them up to get the scoop.

Patrick Banks: My name is Patrick Banks, and I am the assistant secretary, which is the head of the office of Fisheries.

Boyce: Banks’ team ran the numbers. The biologists found that what’s known as “recruitment” had dropped to the lowest levels ever recorded. That’s a measure of how many eggs manage to survive to become full-grown fish.

So what is going on? It's hard to know exactly. That’s because fisheries are a complex science. But Banks told me that the loss of so much marshland was almost certainly a key factor. And, whatever was going on, the fish were struggling enough that the biologists wanted to pass new restrictions.

This time, though, there are fewer options -- commercial redfishing has already been outlawed. So that leaves sportfishing. State biologists want to reduce the number of redfish that sportsmen harvest. But legislature has gotta agree. And Banks is not particularly hopeful he can get them on board. His department wanted new rules to help protect another fin fish called speckled trout. At the time we spoke, it had been four years, and, legislators so far refused to adopt the change. They seemed not to want to get in the way of the sportsmen.

Patrick Banks: and we have not saved a fish yet. And that's, that's just a shame. And, and the politicians and the groups that, that control these politicians should be ashamed of themselves.

Boyce: The big focus in these kinds of rules is what's called the "bag limit." Basically, how many fish can you keep each day? In the case of redfish, the state wildlife commission wanted to bring the bag limit from five fish down to three. But the Louisiana chapter of the CCA came out against that proposal.

At public meetings, a lot of local guides said they don't even think there’s a problem. If redfish are harder to catch, that's probably because of a few years of bad weather.

Andy Messenger: If we push this back a year, there will be no debate. The redfish population will be back.

Boyce: Other guides, though, said that we need to listen to the science – and changing the bag limit shouldn't be a big deal. No matter the limit, you can catch all you want -- you just gotta release them.

Guide: Folks come and visit Louisiana, for the best red fishery in the world. They don't come here just to slaughter fish. They come here to experience one of the best natural ecosystems in the world.

Boyce: One of the world's best natural ecosystems: for me, that was an alluring description. So, as I sat through all these contentious meetings, I decided I had to get out and chase some fish myself.

Casting sound

That's why, back in November, I'm out on the murky water of Lake St. Catherine: me and Chris Macaluso, my fishing guide. We’re casting, searching for fish. And still finding . . . nothing at all. Not a bite.

We have a photographer along for the trip, and he's packed a snack, just in case things drags on like this. When Chris notices, he isn't happy about this choice.

Chris Macaluso: Who brought a banana?

Rory: I did.

Chris: Woo! No.

Rory: What, is that bad for fish?

Chris Macaluso: It's bad luck, man. It is bad luck. I don't particularly care. But there are, I'm not exaggerating, there are people who would take you back to the marina.

Boyce: Chris says the bad luck of bananas is an old fishing superstition. So the photographer stows the banana and we try to recover from the curse. Chris decides to cross under a highway, to Lake Pontchartrain. This is when he ties on his “secret weapon” bait – that stinky plastic shrimp. Even that doesn’t seem to help at first. But, after we’ve been out for four hours, his luck turns.

Chris Macaluso: Mission accomplished.

Boyce: Successful mission, yes.

Chris Macaluso: All right, let’s make five more casts and then I’ll take y’all back…

Boyce: It’s a big redfish for the marsh, a solid sheath of scales and muscle, tinted a bit orange. And, then before the fish chokes, Chris decides to place it back in the water. He’s a sportsman, after all, and he wants to sustain the population.

I have mixed feelings, to be honest, watching that redfish kick away. I'm happy that this beautiful creature might remain alive. And I'm glad to have an excuse to be out here, in what is indeed a beautiful place. But I still have never tasted a wild-caught Louisiana redfish.

Tape: Please refrain from clapping, cheering. And also please direct your comments to the commission, not to members of the, of the audience. Thank you.

Boyce: Back on shore, the redfish wars continued in meeting after meeting. Eventually, though, the politicians settled on a compromise. A new rule will probably go into effect at some point this summer: fishermen will be allowed to keep four redfish each day. One less than they used to be able to. That’s assuming the relevant legislative oversight committee lets the rule stand.

But state biologists say that even with this new rule in place, it will take 25 years for redfish populations to rebound. And, over those 25 years, the marsh will keep on disappearing – creating new challenges for the species. A lot of guides aren’t happy with this decision. They want a stricter rule — a faster recovery.

Meeting (March): you have the power in this one decision to change generational futures. One small vote will affect so many people.

Boyce: In my mind, it’s more true that it will affect so many FISH. Still, I can't help but notice that this modern iteration of the redfish wars is a narrow debate. It is ONLY about sportsmen, and whether they get three fish or four fish or five.

Louisiana lost something when this fish was taken off plates. Now, for so many people, the debate over redfish no longer matters: Even if you like eating a blackened redfish, boxes of farmed fish will keep on coming. So if the fall of the redfish is a warning of more losses to come, it may be a warning too few people will hear.

HALLE: Thanks for listening to Sea Change.

This episode was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, an independent, nonprofit news organization. Freelance journalist Boyce Upholdt reported and hosted the episode. To read more of Boyce’s work, mark your calendars because he’s coming out with a new book about the Mississippi River in June. It’s called The Great River. You’re going to want to pick up a copy! And for other stories by Boyce, check out his Substack called Southlands.

Sea Change’s managing producer is Carlyle Calhoun. This episode was edited by Morgan Springer and Carlyle. With additional help from Eva Tesfaye and me, Halle Parker. The episode was fact-checked by Garrett Hazelwood. Our sound designer is Emily Jankowski. And our theme music is by Jon Batiste.

Sea Change is a WWNO and WRKF production. We are part of the NPR Podcast Network and distributed by PRX.

Sea Change is made possible with major support from the Gulf Research Program of the National Academy of Sciences, Engineering and Medicine. WWNO’s Coastal Desk is supported by the Walton Family Foundation, the Meraux Foundation, and the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

We’ll be back in two weeks. Thanks for being here.