Net Gains and Losses

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

In the industry's heyday, there were more than 20 processing plants along the Atlantic Coast, with about 130 vessels trolling the waters. Now, the only major player is Omega.

Still, the combined Gulf and Atlantic menhaden harvests make it the second-largest commercial fishery by weight. Omega pulls about 30 million pounds of menhaden from the Gulf each year. From Virginia's portion of the Chesapeake Bay, the center of much Omega controversy, the company draws about 230 million pounds.

Omega has had a presence along the Gulf, in one form or another, since the 1950s, but its origins can be traced back to a guy named John Haynie, who established the John A. Haynie Company in 1878. In 1903, it became Haynie, Snow & Company, and then, perhaps fearing his company's name wasn't funny enough, he renamed it the Reedville Oil & Guano Company. In 1968, someone had the good sense to change the name yet again, this time to Haynie Products. Four years later, the company was purchased by the Zapata Corporation. (Critics love pointing out that Zapata was co-founded by George H.W. Bush, as if Bush himself cruised the Atlantic Coast in a speedboat, personally executing every menhaden with a pitchfork. In actuality, Bush sold his interests in Zapata long before).

...the fish are vacuumed into the carrier, which can hold about one million pounds of menhaden.
...the fish are vacuumed into the carrier, which can hold about one million pounds of menhaden.
Oily and bony, the menhaden will not be found on a menu alongside salmon or snapper.
Oily and bony, the menhaden will not be found on a menu alongside salmon or snapper.

By early 1993, Zapata's largest stockholder was Malcolm Glazer, a tycoon with an apparent fondness for diverse portfolios who invested in everything from fast food to trailer parks to motorcycles to the company that makes Formica. Two years after assuming control of Zapata, he went on a sports franchise shopping spree that netted him the Tampa Bay Buccaneers and, after a failed attempt to buy the Los Angeles Dodgers, he plunked down a $1.5 billion controlling interest in the Manchester United soccer team.

Omega went public in 1997; Glazer's son Avram was chairman and CEO from 1998 until 2006, when, after the one-two punch of hurricanes Katrina and Rita severely damaged Omega's Gulf plants, the Glazers sold their interest. Today, it's headed by Joseph L. von Rosenberg III, who's been with the company since 1997. He pulls in a relatively modest $1.1 million in salary and benefits, and says he pops about a dozen OmegaPure capsules a day. (When doling them out to his kids, he told one reporter, they're called "smart pills.")

Omega owns 58 fishing vessels and 32 spotter planes, although not all are in operation. Von Rosenberg has had a lot to contend with lately. Like just about every other company that didn't receive a government bailout, Omega had a rough third quarter in 2009 — revenues were down about $5 million to $49.9 million. The first three quarters totaled about $122 million, down nearly $16 million from the first three quarters in 2008.

Besides the recession, Omega had been battling state and federal bills it believed could seriously threaten or destroy its business. By the late 1990s, it seemed everyone wanted to pick on Omega, when all the company wanted to do was have its unsightly 200-foot steamers cruise near the shore, following the fixed-wing spotter planes overhead to those sweet, sweet menhaden.

Of course, those big vessels are just the beginning of the show. Here's what folks sunning on the sand or lazing on a bass boat with a cool brew get to see next: Two 40-foot purse boats shooting from the carrier vessel, each holding one end of a 1,500-foot net (called a purse seine) to scoop up the menhaden (and the occasional croaker, mullet or shark) and drag them back to the steamer, where they're suction-pumped into a below-board refrigerated holding tank. Then it's off to the processing plant, where they're steam-cooked and dumped into giant screw-presses that squeeze out the oil and water, resulting in a delicious-sounding tonic called press liquor. The remaining dry mass, resulting in the equally delicious-sounding fish cake, is then steam-dried and pulverized. (It's a huge undertaking, and while Omega says it's invested millions on systems to control pollution, Omega was fined six times between 1999 and 2007 for violating permissible discharge levels of wastewater containing cyanide and ammonia.)

It's an aesthetically unpleasant use of public waterways, which is why it angers charter-boat captains and the owners of beach-side hotels. But the people it really pisses off are members of recreational and sport fishing associations. For years, Atlantic anglers have complained that Omega was driving away their beloved striped bass and bluefish. And when those organizations band together, they make a powerful lobby — much more powerful than Omega, which is why clubs with names like the Recreational Fishing Alliance, the Jersey Coast Anglers Association, and the Salty Dogs were able to pressure politicians up and down the coast to limit or ban purse-seining. (These clubs didn't have a problem with the much smaller industry that harvests menhaden for bait — they specifically targeted the reduction industry.)

This resulted in a perception that 13 of the 15 states represented in the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission banned Omega boats from their coasts for purely ecological reasons. It's a belief that really took off with the 2007 publication of The Most Important Fish in the Sea by H. Bruce Franklin, a Rutgers English professor and Herman Melville scholar best known for his books on Vietnam and science fiction (see "Net Gains and Losses: Red Herring").

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