By Alison Fairbrother from The Public Trust Project
Menhaden is a valuable forage fish, known to fisheries scientists as the cornerstone of the Atlantic marine ecosystem. Humans don’t eat menhaden, but just about everything else does, from predator fish to marine mammals to sea birds. But these natural predators are competing with Omega Protein, Inc, a company that harvests hundreds of millions of pounds of menhaden annually. At its plant in Virginia, the company grinds up the menhaden to manufacture fishmeal, fish oil, and other fish solubles.
For nearly a decade, scientists and environmental advocates have been questioning whether this industrial fishery leaves enough menhaden in the ocean to provide adequate forage for all the fish, mammals, and birds that depend on flourishing menhaden stocks for survival.
“Sustainability of species is our most important priority of the company,” says a promotional video on Omega Protein’s website. “Yes, the menhaden population is healthy. And Omega Protein is working to keep it that way.”
We checked statements made on Omega Protein’s Sustainability page against the stock assessment prepared by fisheries scientists affiliated with the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the government body charged with managing and protecting the health of fish populations along the Atlantic coast. We also spoke with Dr. Alexi Sharov, a fisheries expert who was one of the scientists responsible for the assessment.
Four out of the five statements Omega Protein makes about sustainability are factually inaccurate or skewed:
Overfishing DID occur in the terminal year of the 2010 stock assessment for Atlantic menhaden (2008), and the menhaden harvest has exceeded its target 32 out of the past 54 years.
Furthermore, an independent review panel found that the current reference points (limits for how many menhaden can be removed from the ocean) are inadequate. When more conservative reference points are put in place for Atlantic menhaden by the ASMFC sometime this year, the scientific models will likely show that overfishing is occurring on a larger scale.
A lot of menhaden eggs don’t automatically produce a lot of fish. “You can have lots of eggs but if not that many young fish are surviving, then you have a problem. We can say that is a problem with menhaden right now. The model estimates that we have sufficient number of eggs or large number of eggs, but the number of recruits is low,” says Dr. Alexi Sharov, head of the stock assessment program at Department of Natural Resources Fisheries Service in Maryland. “Somewhere between the stage of the egg and a several months old fish, a lot of mortality occurs,” he says.
Actually, Dr. Sharov says, the menhaden catch is 20 percent of the Atlantic biomass ONLY if you are counting the “Young of the Year” or YOY, (fish aged zero to one) among the total population. Fisheries scientists usually exclude the YOY fish, because fish in this age group are so small that they are rarely caught by the menhaden nets. If you count only the age 1+ fish the menhaden fishery is catching in practice, the catch would represent 32 percent of the Atlantic biomass, according to Dr. Sharov.
Friend of the Sea’s website states that it permits certification only for products that do not come from overexploited stocks. The ASMFC stock assessment is rife with indicators that the menhaden population is being overexploited, including:
* Population abundance of age 1+ fish has been declining since the mid-1980s and today is at an all-time low (covering the period 1955-2008)
* Recruitment – that is, the number of juvenile fish produced that survive to enter the adult population – has been poor for over two decades, less than one-third the level in the 1970s and early ’80s
* The fishing mortality rate on age 3 fish and older, the spawning population, is 65-69 percent, making it unlikely that most adult menhaden have a chance to spawn more than once, if at all
*Fecundity, or egg production, from the current spawning population is less than 10 percent that of an un-fished population
(Bulleted statements courtesy of Ken Hinman, President of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation)
Friend of the Sea did not publish an annual report on its website, and the phone number for their U.S. office went directly to an answering service. If Friend of the Sea is in the business of certifying only those products that come from sustainable sources, the organization is obviously in error here.
Omega Protein’s sustainability page can be viewed by clicking here