December 18, 2015

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Chesapeake Bay is fished by industrial fishing boats that hoover up billions of menhaden into their holds and transport them to a local facility where they are ground up for applications such as fertilizer, dog food and omega-3 fish oil supplements. This is known as the menhaden reduction industry, and it accounts for 80% of the menhaden catch in the Atlantic. The health benefits claimed by fish oil companies are not supported by research.


Fish Oil

Omega Protein (NYSE: OME), a company based out of Houston, dominates the menhaden reduction industry, taking the majority of the Atlantic Menhaden catch and operating the only processing facility on the East Coast, which is located in Reedville, Virginia.

If you’re thinking there may be some environmental collateral damage from the industrial fishing of menhaden, you are right. But first let’s learn more about this particular fish. Menhaden, a bony and oily fish, measure up to 15 inches long and are part of the herring family. These fish play a critical ecological role as forage feeders that eat plankton and generate protein and fat that nourish animals higher up in the food web, like sea birds, dolphins, whales and striped bass.

Take a look at this map that details where Omega Protein fishes on the East Coast.

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Source: Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) 2015 Atlantic Menhaden Stock Assessment Report

You’ll notice that there is quite a bit of fishing in Chesapeake Bay. In fact, no other state on the East Coast allows purse seine fishing of menhaden in their bays—no state, that is, except for Virginia. The Virginian-Pilot reports that “While there are menhaden operations throughout East Coast fisheries, approximately 85 percent of Atlantic menhaden are landed in Virginia, and Omega’s Reedville [Virginia] operation is the only reduction fishery on the Atlantic coast.”

Groups like the Chesapeake Bay Defense Foundation, whose specific goal is to end purse seine fishing inside Virginia state waters, argue that industrial menhaden fishing by Omega Protein is degrading the Chesapeake Bay in several ways. Firstly, the extraction of a species critical to the food web reduces population levels of other important fish like striped bass. (Local fishermen report much weaker catches after the massive menhaden purse seiners operated by Omega Protein move through.) Secondly, since Chesapeake Bay is a giant nursery for juvenile menhaden, their intense extraction in the region could collapse local menhaden populations. Third, these floating fishing factories discharge “bail” water directly into the Chesapeake Bay, violating the Clean Water Act and doing untold damage to the local ecosystem. According to the United States Department of Justice:

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Toxic and illegal “bail” water

From May 2008 through September 2010, Omega Protein violated the Clean Water Act through the operation of its fish processing facility in Reedsville, VA and through the operation of its fishing fleet, also based in Reedsville. Specifically, Omega’s processing facility generated a fish waste known as “bail” water, the court records indicate. This bail water consisted of water mixed with fish waste and was permitted to be discharged at a point beyond three nautical miles from the shore, provided it was not mixed with any other chemicals or wastes.  According to the statement of facts filed with the Court, Omega combined the bail water with pollutants generated by the processing operations and a caustic substance.  This material was then discharged into the Chesapeake Bay at a point less than three nautical miles from the shore.

The company settled for millions of dollars, yet there isn’t conclusive evidence available that shows they have cleaned up their act.

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Dr. Sylvia Earle documenting menhaden fishing in Chesapeake Bay in 2012

In 2012, Mission Blue founder and National Geographic Society Explorer-in-Residence Dr. Sylvia Earle suited up and jumped into Chesapeake Bay to see the scourge of the menhaden reduction industry firsthand. In what became one of the most dramatic scenes of the Mission Blue film, Dr. Earle approached and filmed the giant purse seine nets, packed with panicking menhaden, which are then sucked up a tube into the hold of the factory boats.

“I’ve looked at any number of charts, graphs, numbers on a page,” said Dr. Earle. “I’ve seen lots of photographs of industrial fishing operations. But to actually be in the water with the fish—It was surreal to see those little fish captured in a way that is unlike anything in the history of the planet until we came along. For a moment, I felt as if a piece of me was being ripped out of the ocean as well.”

The local community has started to take notice. See this local news clip below (and more are available here).

“Because depletion of the juvenile population in the inshore nursery areas has dire consequences for the ecology of the bays, every Atlantic state, from Florida to Maine, except Virginia, bans purse seining for menhaden in its inshore and near-shore waters,” says William Tabor of the Chesapeake Bay Defense Foundation. “The result is that Omega Protein, the sole industrial menhaden reduction fishing operation, catches nearly its entire Atlantic quota in Virginia waters, with fully half its quota taken inside the Chesapeake Bay.”

The graphs below from Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission data show two trends. First, that the population levels of Atlantic menhaden have declined drastically since the middle of the 1980’s. Second, the reduction industry accounts for almost all of this decrease: roughly 80% of the menhaden catch is used for fish oil, fertilizers, animal feed and other commercial products, while 20% is used for bait by commercial fishermen.

Menhaden-Landings_Abundance

Source: Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

“The juvenile menhaden that come into the Bay are the important ones,” says Steven Epstein of the Chesapeake Bay Defense Foundation. “The older fish don’t filter feed like the little ones do. So why can’t the fishing take place outside state lines—three miles out like in other states—where they won’t pollute the coast and hurt the Bay? That would put an end to all the problems, I think.”

Agreed. So why isn’t Virginia better protecting the Chesapeake Bay and the menhaden nursery within it? Here’s the rub: every fishery in Virginia is managed by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission—every fishery, that is, except the menhaden fishery. That important fishery is managed directly by Virginia’s General Assembly, which is the state legislature. How strange. While some members of the legislature are trying to address the issue, others are not.

According to an editorial in the Virginian-Pilot:

In June, Gov. Terry McAuliffe praised Omega for its contributions to Virginia’s economy—more than $88 million a year.

That’s significant. And if the industry were being regulated as all other saltwater fisheries are—by scientists—the praise wouldn’t be suspect. But McAuliffe, like many other public officials in Virginia, has benefited from Omega, receiving $25,000 in 2014 for the governor-elect’s inaugural committee, according to vpap.org. In all, the company has contributed $385,749 to the campaigns of Virginia candidates.

That matters because Virginia’s menhaden fishery is controlled by the General Assembly rather than by regulators, as all other saltwater fish are. Virginia is the only state on the Atlantic coast where lawmakers manage the menhaden fishery.

As grassroots environmentalists have brought more pressure to the issue, a Facebook page was created on December 7th called the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition that disputes many of the claims made in this article. Go ahead and read the posts on this Facebook page and also see the local backlash in the comments. Also, notice that the address of this Facebook page is listed on K Street in Washington DC, the epicenter of lobbyist power in the United States. It would seem that Omega Protein and the menhaden reduction industry isn’t going to leave Chesapeake Bay without a fight.

You can write Virginia lawmakers as well as the EPA and your members of Congress telling them to better regulate the menhaden reduction industry. The Chesapeake Bay Defense Foundation has even provided a template letter you can use, available here. Also, you can avoid products with fish oils such as fish oil supplements, many kinds of pet foods and fertilizers.

Mission Blue will keep you in the loop as the menhaden politics and big fishing interests play out in the Chesapeake Bay into 2016. Please write to info@mission-blue.org with any information that can be helpful in the campaign to restore balance and legality to the fishing practices in the area.

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19 Comments

  • A.S. whole says:

    Virginia lawmakers are crooked. And there is NOTHING you can do about it!

  • Richard Kelly says:

    I think the time for talk has come and gone . It is time to roll up our sleeves and get a petition to ban the commercial harvest of bunker on the eastern seaboard. Once the petition has been compiled ( which will require millions of signatures ) it must be delivered to every member in the US congress,US senate and the Virgina legislature . I am game if any body else is ? . We can organize and put an end to this insnaity

    • J. Dixon says:

      Mr.Kelly I will join your effort. We live on the Eastern Shore of Virginia and I almost daily witness 2-3 menhaden boats (Factory Ships) outside or home in 15′-20′ of water just 1/2 mile off our beach. As a child I used to dive in the same area to watch bottom feeders and coral formations which are now gone along with the small crabs and fish which used to live in the habitat. The menhaden commercial boats have destroyed the bottom with their equipment and their waste water washed up on our beaches. Just last year there were 3 gigantic fish spills from their nets with the dead fish on our beaches. I also have written and spoken to VA State officials and they have done nothing. It is time to investigate the politicians which I believe are corrupt. Our Chesapeake Bay is a fragile environment get the menhaden commercial boats out of the Bay!

  • Marco says:

    Why not Bribe Terry Macauliffe like Omega does ?He can be bought for $ 25,000 (cheap cheap cheap ! )And that from an industry that made 88 million in Va.

  • T says:

    Yeah go catch a croaker for me . The bay is dying a slow death and netters are responsible. charter boat captains are basically commercial fisherman. I know most waterman don’t respect a regular fishermans opinion so why don’t you survey your buddies the charter boat captains. I am guessing they will tell you Marylands fishery is better then Virginia’s . Now how is that possible with all the population’ in that area producing all of that pollution. You think Maryland has less farming runoff then Virginia ? And then combine the human pollution factor. I would argue their pollution problem is bigger than ours but their fishing is better. Why ? NO NETTERS!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

  • Robert pollard says:

    The only solution to this problem is to change the law in va.Every year someone comes up with some new legislation,but it never gets out of the first sub committee.
    As soon as you start talking about reducing the harvest the folks in Reedville start talking about jobs.What they do not tell you is that it is not a year round job and when the fleet is not fishing the employees go on welfare.
    The economic benefit provided by The Menhaden Fishery is a drop in the bucket compared the economic benefit of the recreational fishing industry.

  • John says:

    I like fish oil.

  • Clifford Goudey says:

    It’s worth mentioning that these harvests are at levels recommended by ASMFC, the fisheries science group responsible for the management of Menhaden stocks. If their catch quotas are excessive, then why is the industry being faulted? Isn’t all this wrath being misdirected?

    It worries me when the real and permanent damage being done to the oceans get ignored. Why attack fishermen when pollution runoff, warming oceans, and acidification are the real problems.

  • Jack M. LaValley says:

    Wow! This kind of greed (Omega) has become epidemic in the world. Maybe I’ve just been naive and ignorant all these years and it’s been here all along, nevertheless, it cannot be denied anymore. It is everywhere and everywhere ‘it is’, it is monstrously destructive. To get a real convincing view of this phenomenon in an entertaining yet stupefying way, see the movie, The Big Short. Seeing the workings of the minds that carry out such attacks may get through to you, as it did me, just how threatening such self-centered thinking is to our survival. Their effect on human society is devastating and, as self-centered as it seems to be, it is also just that self-destructive in the long run. We must wise up and think bigger or it’s over very soon.

  • Scott Vickers says:

    The real tragedy here is that the Omega-3 fatty acids that menhaden are being slaughtered into oblivion for are not generated by these fish at all–or any fish–but rather originate in the algae they eat. While Omega-3s are touted as being heart-healthy (lowering cholesterol) in humans (an unproven theory), they could more effectively and safely be produced by algae farms set up along coastal regions or in the open sea and cheaply processed to extract Omega-3s. If your cardiologist recommends Omega-3s, there are already algae-based options available, notably at Whole Foods and Vitamin Cottage stores–these contain no fish products.
    As to the argument that Mission Blue or any other oceanic organization has a “vendetta” against fishermen and the fishing industry, this is patently untrue. What marine biologists do know, however, is that purposeful overfishing of any species will eventually result in its extinction, thus making it impossible for fishermen to earn a living. So it would seem to be in the best interests of the fishing industry as a whole to establish sustainable fishing practices that would ensure both their own livelihoods and those of the fish that sustain them.

  • I just found your website and I think our organizations have the same goal-to reduce the demand on forage fish.
    We have a sustainable crustacean bait that has the potential to do away with forage fish for use as bait ( a wasteful, ecologically destructive practice). Everyone knows these fish are in demand and our new technology will help alleviate at least some pressure on these fish.
    I invite you to check out our Facebook and Website for more information

  • james crowley says:

    Thank you and welcome aboard. The industrial harvest of forage fish must be stopped.

  • Paul Dixon says:

    Omega Protein is raping , plundering and distroying the Chesapeake Bay. Let alone bribing and corrupting the General Assembly that controls the fishery.

  • Robert F. Gardner says:

    I strongly urge that immediate action be taken by the Virginia Legislature to protect the menhaden population so as to support the current and future vitality of the Chesapeake Bay and it’s vital food chain.

  • Ann Hewitt says:

    How can we stop this tragedy?

  • james cross says:

    Although I have moved to NC keep me informed.

  • Joe Waple says:

    I didn’t even read your article and already know that you have a vendetta against commercial fishermen and their industry in general. Go ahead and buy your shrimp from slavers in Thailand. Get your Omega-3’s from Antarctic krill and destroy THAT ecosystem. Menhaden fishing is not the culprit in damaging the Chesapeake, it’s farmers with their fertilizers, homeowners with their Roundup and chemical manufacturers, all whose contaminated runoff is combining to pollute our most treasured Bay.

  • Wendelin Giebel says:

    The NMFS has labelled our Northwest Atlantic Inshore Migratory Stock of Bottlenose Dolphin as genetically and morphologically distinct. They have awarded these dwindling numbers of coastal animals as being “depleted”. They feed on adult menhaden. They are known to gorge themselves on adult menhaden. They are being forced to compete for the remaining small remnant of the menhaden’s unfished biomass (1-2%) which now remains in the water. National Marine Fisheries Service supplied the “statisticians” that deployed and set up the Beaufort Assessment Model on menhaden using #s of eggs as an indicator of biomass , imagine the idiocy and arrogance of that? NMFS still has employees managing this stock on the ASMFC menhaden Technical committee , they have failed to rebuild this stock to protect these cetaceans. These animals have been “starved out” of a huge portion of their range in the waters surrounding NY where they have “disappeared” along with historical populations of pilot whales and harbor porpoises. In the “50-60’s” , when the annual reduction catch of menhaden would have filled an unbroken freight train from New York City to Philadelphia NY’s whales were extirpated from our waters here. NMFS is mandated by law to protect these animals and they are lending the money to Omega to buy and upgrade their vessels ( 21 million) , they are supplying the ” ludicrous science” that is this “virtual” paper Frankenstein management system which routinely creates virtual paper fish and virtual paper biomasses that don’t exist. Starving marine mammals is in the vocabulary of the Marine Mammals Protection Act its referred to as causing ” serious injury” . With guys like the NMFS on watch who needs exterminators? No consequences for these NMFS guys regardless of how horrific things are getting on their watch . “CLUB FED” employees, no skin in the game, ever.

  • Mackenzie Brunson says:

    It’s definitely worth repeating that no one wants to put Omega out of business. We just want them to treat our water with respect. The watermen of the Chesapeake Bay are historically significant to Virginia and a tradition that has been passed on generation after generation. It’s really sad that Omega has such short-term thinking with their reduction fishery practices. If they don’t slow down there won’t be any fish left for them to catch and they will ruin the Bay for everyone. If they would just fish three miles out like they are supposed to the Chesapeake Bay Defense Fund would not exist and this article would not have needed to be written. What isn’t noted here is that diplomacy with Omega has been tried on several occasions through gentlemen’s agreements. They kept breaking their promises. This could have been a story about a company that decided to do the right thing. Now it’s political. Their choice.

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