Overfishing menhaden is okay with Virginia
Menhaden are being over-harvested by one company and the striped bass population has declined by as much as 30 percent. VA sees no correlation – accepts trumped numbers
By Skip Clement
Omega Protein is headquartered in Houston, Texas, with most all of its harvesting of menhaden stocks accomplished in the mid-Atlantic of the U. S. East Coast for a total of 90% of the menhaden harvested in all U. S. waters. The extent of its harvest has been a subject of controversy.
Omega’s care-less impact
In December 2012, in the face of the depletion of Atlantic menhaden, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission imposed a limit on Omega’s operations, “capping the total annual commercial catch at 170,800 metric tons, about 80 percent of the average harvest from the last three years.”
Menhaden, the most crucial forage fish along the U. S. east coast, is the bellwether of the health of the entire east coast commercial and sports fishing communities, as well as a myriad of birds of prey and other migrating, top of the food chain ocean prey fish like billfish and some sharks, for example.
2013 Clean Water Act Violation (Trump administration in the process of removing restrictions)
Omega Protein was charged with two counts of discharging pollutants and harmful amounts of oil from its Reedville, Virginia-based fishing vessels into U.S. waters in violation of the Clean Water Act for violations between May 2008 and December 2010.
The company was later sentenced for both violations in United States District Court in Norfolk, Virginia with three years of probation and financial penalties totaling $7.5 million. The company has since paid the fines in full and conducted additional community service to clean regional waterways.
Omega Protein has several domestic and foreign-owned subsidiaries ($308.6 million total sales in 2014 with 1150 employees worldwide). Omega is also a foreign-owned division of, Cooke Aquaculture.
Certification is Part of Misleading PR Strategy for Destructive Menhaden Fishery
One company that undermines striped bass populations in the Atlantic is paying to put a blue ribbon on its harmful practices
Reduction fishing is the practice of “reducing” huge numbers of fish into oil and meal to be used in other products—primarily feed for other animals, like pets and farmed salmon. Perhaps it’s not a widely known term because reduction fishing is banned in states up and down the east coast, for decades in some places.
In fact, Virginia is the only state that continues to permit the last holdout of the reduction fishing industry in the Atlantic—a single company called Omega Protein, part of the Canadian-owned Cooke Inc.—to continue to fish for menhaden in this way.
The irony of taking forage fish out of the water that would naturally feed most of our ocean predators and grinding it up to feed farmed fish is not lost on anyone. And you don’t have to be a fisherman to understand that when you suck up the fish at the bottom of the food chain, everything else suffers. So, it should be no surprise that removing large quantities of menhaden has had a negative impact on striped bass fishing.
The menhaden reduction fishing industry accounts for 80 percent of the coastwide catch of these important forage fish. At this level of menhaden harvest, the striped bass population has declined by as much as 30 percent. In fact, the latest stock assessment is likely to show that striped bass are overfished.
Despite perpetuating an antiquated practice that reduces biomass of other fish species in the Atlantic, Omega Protein has applied to have the menhaden fishery certified as “sustainable” by the Marine Stewardship Council, a private international institution. This certification is strictly a pay-to-play arrangement, and it could successfully put a blue ribbon on fishing practices that rob anglers of our sportfishing opportunities. MSC does not even know how many predators rely on menhaden for food to determine if the fishery can legitimately be considered sustainable. Nobody does.
Now, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission—the multi-state agency that sets catch limits on menhaden—is working to get to the bottom of this key question, largely because of the recent outcry from sportsmen and women about the impacts of reduction fishing on sportfish populations.
Since November 2017, the ASMFC has had a scientific team working on a model to account for menhaden’s critical role to sportfish like striped bass and the broader ecosystem. And the truth is that no one can certify that the menhaden fishery is “sustainable” until that question is answered.
But it’s likely that MSC will grant the certification, despite publishing in its own report that the health of the striped bass population is directly linked to menhaden. (They also solicited public feedback as part of their determination, which could be overwhelming.)
Instead of certifying that the Atlantic menhaden fishery as sustainable, MSC should be calling on the industry to substantially reduce its catch, so that predators like striped bass don’t take a hit from the removal of 30 percent of their forage base. Further, Congress should put a stop to reduction fishing in the federal waters of the Atlantic, at least until striped bass have recovered.
In the meantime, we’ll do whatever we can to support the fisheries managers at the ASMFC in their efforts to analyze the actual impacts of reduction fishing of menhaden.
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Featured Image is our editor and FLM.com owner, and Long Island On The Fly guide, Captain Andrew Derr with a 2018 season striper. Photo by B. McCarthy.