Omega Protein Still Dangerously Distorting the Facts

Just in time for the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) meeting on August 2nd, Omega Protein Inc has once again presented a slew of inaccurate statements about Atlantic menhaden in a letter to ASMFC Commissioners.

At the meeting, Commissioners will be voting on whether to replace the existing threshold for fishing mortality with a new one that is more conservative and protects a greater amount of menhaden from the nets of commercial fisheries. The vote comes at a time when it is widely acknowledged that menhaden stocks have reached an historic low, having declined 88 percent over the last 25 years.

Industry representatives, including Omega Protein and bait industry signatories, have crafted a letter that implores Commissioners to ignore the growing problem.

Their letter is light on facts, heavy on falsehoods:

1) The letter states: “The menhaden stock is at target abundance.”

This assertion sharply conflicts with ASMFC’s own stock assessment, which shows that in 2008 the menhaden stock was at its lowest point in history. The estimated number of eggs produced by the spawners is at the target level. But with respect to abundance, or the number of fish, in 2008 we were at the lowest point in history.

2) The letter claims: “The ‘overfishing’ that was found in 2008 was a matter of being only 0.004 over the fishing mortality (“F”) threshold…therefore, it is very likely that this minor problem has already been corrected.”

The reference here to “this minor problem” relates to a fishing mortality threshold in use in 2008. A panel of independent experts found that those standards (reference points) were not adequate for forage fish like menhaden, and advised that more conservative standards be developed. Were it not for this critical review, the ASMFC menhaden management board would not have initiated the current process to develop new standards.

Furthermore, in 2008, the menhaden harvest was 188,000 metric tons. The harvest in 2010 was 226,650 metric tons. If overfishing was a problem in 2008, an increase of over 20 percent does not suggest that the problem is either “minor” or solved.

3) The industry representatives write: “the menhaden stock assessment model essentially assumes—because it has no information—there are no age-three or older menhaden in existence outside the range of the reduction fishery in the Mid-Atlantic.”

This is completely false, notes Dr. Alexei Sharov, a fisheries expert from the Maryland Department of Natural Resources, and one of the scientists responsible for the menhaden stock assessment. “In the age structure information from the stock assessment, we used groups up to age eight. All ages are present there. That information is in the stock assessment, though some age groups have smaller percentages.”

4) The letter states: “[If the board goes through with approving the new threshold] cuts in harvest could exceed 30 percent.  This would be using a bazooka to kill a fly—a far disproportionate response to a minor overfishing problem that may no longer even exist.”

If new, more conservative reference points are implemented by the board, as has been recommended by the independent review panel, these new standards will likely show that overfishing has occurred during the overwhelming majority of the last 54 years – a severe problem stretching back over half a century.

On August 2nd, the ASMFC will be making important decisions about the Atlantic menhaden in the wake of several of scientific breakthroughs that have challenged the way low-trophic species like menhaden are managed.

The first comprehensive study on the impacts of harvesting low-trophic species was published last week in the journal Science. The authors found that halving the harvest of these fish would significantly reduce the impact on ecosystems and prevent their collapse, in addition to helping predator stocks recover from their dramatic decline.

A recent panel of independent scientists recommended that as much as 75 percent of virgin biomass for species like menhaden be kept from the nets of industrial fisheries.

Omega Protein and its signatories would like the Commission to believe that barely missing the current 8 percent threshold limit is something to be commended.

The ASMFC has a mandate to foster “healthy, self-sustaining populations for all Atlantic coast fish species.” At this important juncture in the history of menhaden oversight, the regulatory process has the opportunity to balance the findings of credible, independent scientific review against the unsubstantiated assertions of politically influential corporations.  At stake is the long-term health of one of the most environmentally important species in the Atlantic ocean.
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