Net Gains and Losses

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

The one state in the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission where anglers didn't have enough power to ban purse-seining was Virginia, home to Omega's only East Coast processing plant. But they were able to apply enough pressure to the remarkably industry-friendly Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to persuade the group to order a five-year cap on the fish Omega could pull from the Chesapeake's Virginia waters.

For years, anglers and conservationists claimed that the abundance of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay was dangerously low. This, they speculated, cut down not only the number of predator species but, in some cases, those species' health. Fishermen in the bay, for example, had complained of underweight striped bass festooned with lesions caused by a nasty "wasting" condition called mycobacteriosis. Researchers haven't reached a consensus on cause, but many believe one factor might be stress, and some of that stress could be caused by dwindling numbers of their favorite fish snack.

This five-year cap would also ostensibly give scientists time to better understand the role of menhaden in consuming the nitrogen-rich phytoplankton, which contribute to the growth of oxygen-sucking algae.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission kindly shot for the status quo: The annual cap was set at 105,000 metric tons — Omega's average catch from 2000-2005. But Omega still said it would virtually destroy business and drive those poor 200 people at the processing plant out of work.

Virginia Governor Tim Kaine stepped in with a more friendly offer: a cap of 109,000 metric tons. Plus, Omega could make up for any shortages from one year in the following year, up to 122,000 metric tons.

Picking up on this concern in the East, the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife enacted its own cap on menhaden harvested in its portion of the Gulf. Texas is the only state of the five comprising the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission to regulate menhaden catch. Mike Ray, director of coastal fisheries for the Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife, says it's strictly a precautionary measure.

"Right now, the Gulf stock of menhaden is doing fine," he says, adding later, "some of the other state agencies in the Gulf were not particularly supportive of [the cap]." He also says that Omega has been "honest and forthcoming."

Aaron Viles of the New Orleans-based Gulf Restoration Network says that, even though the cap just maintains the status quo, it's encouraging.

"It exhibits an interest in the fishery that other states [in the Gulf] haven't really shown," he says, adding that the next step is to examine the menhaden's role in the Gulf, as they were supposed to have been doing in Virginia for the last five years. "Tougher questions need to be asked about the overall health of the ecosystem...but at a minimum, we don't think they should be catching more fish."

Viles would like to see Omega-funded, government-trained, independent observers riding on the fishing boats to collect data on the health of the stock as well as update the research on bycatch — the other species of fish that accidentally wind up in Omega's nets.

Historically, both Omega and government researchers say the bycatch percentage is an insignificant 1 percent — much smaller than bycatch in other fisheries.

"That small percentage...disguises a really big number," Viles says. "You know, when you've got a billion pounds in your fishery, even if it's 1 percent...you're talking about ten million to 20 million pounds of fish..."

But Omega spokesman Ben Landry says there is a lot of misinformation clouding the issue, spread by "anti-commercial fishing activists" who cherry-pick the data that supports their cause.

"I don't think it's as easy as some people think, that Omega Protein is bad, you know, close the book, that's it...There's another side of the story and in order to tell our side, you know, we have to dig into...the technical nature of the fishery, which, you know, the average person just kind of paying attention isn't going to do."

But if you're talking about cherry-picking, Omega might be doing that as well: Although Landry says Omega harvests only 20 percent of the menhaden, he's talking about menhaden of all ages. Alexei Sharov, of the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission's Menhaden Technical Committee, says the company harvests well over 50 percent of adult menhaden ages three and up.

But whatever you want to do with numbers, Landry says, "It's never been about the science. I guess that's the unfortunate part of this whole debate...All of the available science about the health of the stock has proved that it's a healthy, sustainable, robust in some cases, stock that is not overfished, nor is overfishing occurring."
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The stock is not overfished, nor is overfishing occurring.

This is the mantra of the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission and its counterpart in the Atlantic. Even as the overall abundance of menhaden declined over the last 50 years, these agencies have always considered the stock healthy.

The Gulf commission comprises 15 voting members, appointed by legislators, governors and state fishery agents. Working from data provided by the National Marine Fisheries Service, the Commission ostensibly monitors the abundance of a variety of species in the Gulf. But this data comes from commercial harvesters, in the form of monthly reports by ship captains on how many fish they pulled each day. The National Marine Fisheries Service conducts stock assessments roughly every five years, which are for the most part measuring the health of the stock as it applies to industry. It's a heartwarming example of government and industry hangin' out in bed, reading the Sunday paper. In fact, they snuggle so closely together it's difficult to tell where government ends and industry begins.

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