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Omega Protein's Atlantic menhaden catch to be cut by 20%

By Hank Schultz , 19-Dec-2012

Omega Protein, the largest manufacturer of fish oil omega-3s based in the US, will have to live with a 20% reduction in the amount of menhaden it can harvest in the Atlantic, the company announced recently.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) has approved a 20% decrease in fish catch for the Atlantic Coast menhaden bait and reduction fisheries.  The decrease is based on the 2009 to 2011 three year catch average and is expected to take effect, if ratified by the member ASMFC states, in the 2013 fishing season.

The Atlantic fishery accounts for about 30% of Omega Protein’s total fish catch, where the company has been operating eight vessels, Ben Landry, director of public affairs for Omega Protein, told NutraIngredients-USA.  The company brings in the majority of its catch via its Gulf Coast fisheries, where it operates more than 20 vessels.

The restriction will limit the total amount of Atlantic menhaden that can be landed by both the reduction fishery, conducted by Omega Protein, and the bait fisheries, conducted by other third parties, to 170,800 metric tons, the company said. Omega Protein's Atlantic menhaden catch averaged approximately 167,000 metric tons per year based on the 2009 to 2011 three year average. In 2011 the Company's Atlantic menhaden catch was 174,000 metric tons.  The ASMFC also voted to allocate the quota to each state based on historical catch data, and the company said that it expects that Virginia, where its East Coast fleet is based, will preserve the reduction fisheries historic share of total reduction and bait landings.

Base of food chain

Menhaden are a sardine-like forage fish that range in huge schools from Canada to Florida and into the Gulf.  As filter feeders, they form an important base of the marine food chain.  They have historically been harvested for food and later, for use as fertilizer and more recently for use in aquaculture and in omega-3 supplements.  Omega Protein markets a line of omega-3 fish oils under the OmegaPure brand name.

Critics of the fishery such as the Pew Environmental Trust allege menhaden have been overfished for decades , depressing the size of the population to historically low levels.  Omega Protein, for its part, vigorously defends its fishing record.  The company has a Friend of the Sea certification.

"Omega Protein has been fishing these Atlantic waters for a century and no one is more interested in the sustainability of the resource than we are. However, we are disappointed by the ASMFC's decision to adopt these harvest reductions," said Bret D. Scholtes , CEO of Omega Protein.

Unreliable data

“This has been a long process. A lot of it has been clouded by the fact that the most recent but the stock assessments were deemed to too unreliable for use in fisheries management,” Landry said. 

“It put the fisheries commission at a disadvantage of not having a true status of the stock or how much restrictions needed to be put into place to bring the population to an ideal level.  So what they had to do was just kind of pick a number out of a hat.  It really led to a lot of jockeying among special interest groups.

“It was disappointing to us. With such unreliable data, We thought a more measured approach would have been a 10% or even 15% reduction,” he said.

“We see a population that is expanding We continue to catch really strong numbers of menhaden with our eight vessels, when two years ago we were fishing with ten.  You typically can’t do that when the population is declining,” Landry said.

Caution wins out

Nevertheless, Landry acknowledged that the fisheries managers were erring on the side of caution with the announcement of the reductions.

“It probably provides those fisheries managers with a sense of confidence that the population was going to be protected until the new assessment can be done in two years,” he said.

Landry said Omega Protein has had experience in dealing with volatile raw material supplies, regarding both the total amount of the catch and the fluctuating amount of oil contained in the fish from year to year.  Delivery of its omega-3 oils to customers would not be affected, he said.

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