Net Gains and Losses

Is the Omega Protein company overfishing the most important fish in the sea?

In 2003, Danny the polar bear, a resident of the Cincinnati Zoo, was having severe skin problems.

The 800-lb. Arctic native's hide was itchy and inflamed; constant scratching wore away fur, exposing the lesions scrawled across the black skin underneath. He was, according to what had to have been the dumbest corporate press release of 2003, "unsuitable for public viewing." Listless and depressed, Danny "had lost interest in eating and interacting with other bears."

So zookeepers turned to the company that would subsequently issue that press release, Houston-based Omega Protein. The largest commercial harvester of an obscure fish called menhaden (men-hay-den), used mostly for fishmeal and fertilizer, Omega was hyping its more palatable product — refined fish oil. Rich in essential fatty acids, the oil was already FDA-approved for use in certain foods, including margarine, baked goods and baking mixes. Health-conscious people could also pop OmegaPure capsules.

Menhaden carrier vessels are equipped with two purse boats that gather the fish...
Menhaden carrier vessels are equipped with two purse boats that gather the fish...
...a spotter plane directs the purse boats to the fish, and the purse crews circle the school with a net...
...a spotter plane directs the purse boats to the fish, and the purse crews circle the school with a net...

This fish oil, with its life-affirming long-chain omega-3 acids, was going to save Danny the bear.

Per the press release, zookeepers switched up Danny's regular meals and mixed in four ounces of fish oil. His "enthusiasm toward eating was restored almost immediately by his new and more appealing diet. Within two months, the animal was completely healed..." Shortly thereafter, zoos in Buffalo and Detroit added Omega Protein fish oil to their polar bears' diets.

Strangely, the press release failed to mention how polar bears in the wild are able to survive without Omega Protein's largesse. Perhaps it's because those bears don't live off frozen fish and horsemeat, feasting instead on seal and live mackerel. Of course, watching a polar bear gnaw on a seal might also be unsuitable for public viewing.

In trying to flex its atrophied public-relations muscles, Omega Protein — a company that wrings oil and profit out of an odious, slimy, inedible member of the herring family — announced its position as a conscientious corporation, ready to swoop in and nurse sick or dying animals back to health.

Omega's critics would have been flabbergasted. For years, conservationists — as well as recreational and sport fishers — have accused the company of overfishing menhaden in the Gulf of Mexico and along the Atlantic Coast. Critics say Omega, by far the largest commercial harvester of menhaden, is destroying marine ecosystems by upsetting the food chain and leaving certain waters plagued with oxygen-sucking algae, resulting in enormous hypoxic "dead zones." In 2009, the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife instituted an annual cap on menhaden harvests along its coast; in 2006, Virginia enacted a five-year cap in its portion of the Chesapeake Bay.

Some critics who say these measures aren't strict enough blame government scientists and the heads of interstate coastal compacts for focusing only on whether the menhaden stock is healthy enough to sustain the industry, and not on the allegedly wide-ranging impact commercial fishing could have on the ecosystem. They call the menhaden "the most important fish in the sea" — and they believe a lone Houston-based company is plundering natural resources to get at them.

And in 2009, for what may be the first time, the government researchers who monitor menhaden populations have preliminary data indicating that the threshold for overfishing may be occurring.

But Omega says science is on its side. All the official reports, it says, indicate menhaden are not being overfished. And besides, why would the company want to fish itself out of business? The company says critics tend to fall into two camps — the cautious and the alarmist, and guess who gets more ink.

The debate is rife with incredibly complex marine biology, acrobatic statistics and impassioned rhetoric. There are more "scientific" reports than you can shake a disgusting fish at. Facts and figures are in abundance. The problem is deciding whose science — and whose truth — to believe.

Although Omega is headquartered in Houston, Omega Protein has a low profile here, and the board of directors like it that way.

None of the foul-smelling fish processing takes place here — only the cool-sounding stuff, like the "food science applications" that go on at the OmegaPure Technology and Innovation Center, where executive research chefs do weird things with lipids and break ground on "burpless" fish oil pill technology.

It's much more peaceful than the attention the company has gotten along the Atlantic, where the gross stuff goes on. Omega harvests much of its bounty in coastal Virginia waters and processes it in a plant in Reedville, Virginia. The rest comes from the Gulf and is processed in Mississippi and Louisiana.

Per its financial filings, Omega is "the largest processor, marketer and distributor of fish meal and fish oil products in the United States." It uses a process called "reduction," in which it reduces the menhaden into smaller parts, which then go into fertilizer, margarine, candy, lipstick, linoleum and the bellies of swine. This generated $177 million in global revenues for 2008.

For a fish no one eats, the menhaden is incredibly useful. In the latter half of the 19th century, oil from menhaden became popular as a cheap, abundant alternative to whale oil. The industry peaked in the 1950s, plummeted through the 1960s, rose again in the 1980s, but is now on the decline. And it's not just the overall abundance that's declining, but "recruitment" — the number of juveniles surviving long enough to enter the exploitable stock.

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