Net Gains and Losses

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

The Gulf commission's Web site, for example, contains a page on menhaden "perceptions" and "realities" that might be mistaken for an industry press release. And the National Marine Fisheries Service is under the auspices of the U.S. Commerce Department, which, through the Fisheries Financing Program, helps commercial fishers find federally backed low-interest loans. (According to Omega's 2008 annual report, the company has $28.4 million in loans through the program.)

And Joseph Smith, a researcher at the National Marine Fisheries Service, comes right out and says, referring to a 2006 report, "The last assessment said that the Gulf menhaden stock is not overfished, contrary to some of the propaganda you'll read."

Moreover, Smith says, there is simply not enough data out there to support or refute conservationists' claims that a dwindling menhaden population can upset the food chain.

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...

"We really don't have an idea of the food webs — who eats who, if you will — in the Gulf," he says, adding later, "we have some of this rudimentary data on the Atlantic Coast — we have nothing like that on the Gulf Coast."

So what's going on in the Atlantic?

Preliminary results for the 2010 menhaden stock assessment suggest that recent harvesting is approaching the threshold of overfishing, says Sharov, of the commission's Menhaden Technical Committee. This means industry may not be able to rely on the rote "The stock is not overfished, nor is overfishing occurring" anymore.

But, as with any aspect of the debate, nothing can be as easy as it seems. The data points used to define overfishing are "somewhat arbitrary," Sharov says. The ASMFC sets "target rates" and "threshold rates" for fishing mortality and fecundity. Tweak one number, for example, and you might wind up with data saying the industry has been overfishing for 50 years. (Hell, tweak another number and you might find out menhaden are extinct.) These are the man-made numbers that some conservationists and anglers say are way off-base.

But regardless of this mathematical mucky-muck, the indisputable fact is that the total Atlantic menhaden population has dropped significantly since the 1950s, and the reduction industry's total landings — the number of fish brought ashore — have generally declined as well. (There were, however, tremendous rebounds in some years.)

It's because of these general declines that Omega, whether under its own name or via industry front group the Menhaden Resource Council, has vigorously fought any caps. When you factor in those declines with what the company's annual report calls "substantial amount of indebtedness," it becomes clear that Omega really needs to catch as many menhaden as possible, and to exploit every possible use the fish has. Every victory is important, such as when the U.S. Food and Drug Administration expanded the types of food menhaden oil can be added to from 14 to 29. Every new study that shows the health benefits of omega-3 fatty acids is an occasion to bone up on OmegaPure capsule advertising.

So when U.S. congressmen from Maryland and New Jersey introduced bills in 2008 to ban reduction boats from federal waters, Omega got busy. They hired John Everett, a former National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration researcher, to do a study on whether menhaden were really all that beneficial to the ecosystem. Parts of the report suggested that not only is menhaden not the most important fish in the sea, but it can be a freaking nuisance. Everett testified before a House subcommittee studying the issue, and Omega also submitted Everett's report to Texas fisheries managers when they were discussing the Texas cap. Texas officials dismissed most of Everett's contentions, as did the technical committee for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

Even Omega CEO Joseph von Rosenberg came out to testify against the federal bills, characterizing some conservationists as zealots who've made the question of the menhaden's role in the ecosystem a political, rather than scientific, matter.

"These advocates come right out and admit their campaign is end-driven," he testified. "The goal had been decided upon, but they keep looking for what they called a 'smoking gun' to convince the public to shut the fishery down. This Alice in Wonderland, 'verdict-first' approach leads us to suspect that at least some groups thrive on controversy rather than solutions."

Not only that, von Rosenberg said, but these fanatics help perpetuate a caricature of the reduction industry "as avaricious, shortsighted, greedy and ultimately self-destructive," when "all they want is the right to make a living, in a reasonable and responsible manner, just like any other American."

He also talked about the employees in the Reedville processing plant and on the boats who would lose their jobs — many of whom are "second-, third- and even fourth-generation fishermen and plant workers in the menhaden industry."

Evoking the image of rabid so-called conservationists kicking the poor Gorton's Fisherman in the yellow rain slicker out on the curb, von Rosenberg talked about Omega's workers who "were raised by the income earned from menhaden, and today they feed and educate their children and support their churches, local businesses and civic institutions with wages this fishery provides."

Von Rosenberg conveniently left out the part about Omega historically hiring foreign workers with visas for seasonal labor. According to Omega's 2008 annual report, when federal legislators didn't renew an exception to the H-2B visa program, Omega "did not receive its historical allotment" of seasonal labor. With this sudden need to recruit domestic workers, Omega had to raise certain wages, offer sign-on bonuses and offer referral fees. Omega's "inability to secure sufficient domestic workers for its vessels or plants could have an adverse effect on the company's business," the report states.

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