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Omega Protein takes issue with 'success' of menhaden limits

By Hank Schultz

25-Jul-2014
Last updated on 25-Jul-2014 at 16:07 GMT

"Menhaden fishing - purse seine boats" by Robert K. Brigham - Image ID: fish0704, NOAA's Fisheries Collection. Licensed under Public domain via Wikimedia Commons

Ben Landry, director of public affairs for Omega Protein corporation, took issue with the way a Pew Charitable Trusts writer characterized the menhaden fishing quotas that have been place for the past year.  The quotas have not been uniformly enforced and were not based on strong science to begin with, Landry said.

Landry penned an opinion piece for the trade journal National Fisherman on the 20% quota cut on the Atlantic mendhaden harvest that was put into place in 2013 after a stock assessment in 2012.  The fish are harvested in many areas along the eastern seaboard, but 85% of the total harvest is caught by boats operating out of Virginia in and near Cheasepeake Bay, and Omega Protein’s fleet catches more than 75% of the Virginia harvest. The small, oily forage fish are also caught in the Gulf of Mexico, which is where Omega Protein catches the bulk of its harvest. 

Omega Protein, which is based in Houston, cut back its eastern fleet by two boats in the face of the restrictions, and laid off 65 employees in Virginia.

Success doesn’t include loopholes

Landry’s piece  took issue with a blog post by Peter Baker of the Pew Charitable Trusts .  Baker had been involved in the effort to get the limits put into place in the first place by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. Baker said the quota reduction had left 300 million more menhaden (also called bunker and pogies) in the ocean to feed other marine life, and that Omega Protein had prospered even in the face of the restrictions, recording record profits in the period.

First off, Landry said that Omega Protein was and would continue to be fully compliant with fishing limits that are in place. Omega Protein is the largest processor of omega-3 fish oil for the dietary supplement market based in the United States. But Landry took issue with Baker’s assessment that the limits had been “successfully” implemented, when a number of loopholes in the scheme remain. 

“If there is a harvest limit in place, Omega Protein is going to be 100% compliant with that limit,” Landry told NutraIngredients-USA. “But if there is a limit, there needs to be some sense of actual conservation. You can’t have other states sending down an edict that they are not going to comply because they think that their allocation is too low.”

In his National Fisherman piece, Landry detailed how pound-net fisherman in Maryland were allowed up to 6,000 pounds per permitted fisherman per day of menhaden as “bycatch.”  And the state of New York, admittedly a bit player in the menhaden harvest scheme, announced it would not comply with the limits at all.

Economic impact

Landry said that Baker’s celebration of the success of the scheme doesn’t take into account the pain felt by the 65 idled workers.  And he said that citing Omega Protein’s profits in the meantime is obfuscating the issue.

“There were 65 people who didn’t have a job in 2013 who did in 2012. There was significant economic impact. And at Pew, they go through our SEC filings and see we had a good year in 2013, but that was not related to the fish harvest. There were positive global trends in fish oil and fish meal prices,” Landry said. In addition, Omega Protein has continued to diversify out of being a strictly marine supply-based company; in 2013 it purchased Wisconsin Specialty Protein, a whey protein producer and earlier purchased ingredient supplier Cyvex Nutrition, all which contributes to the company’s bottom line.

Omega Protein has maintained for a couple of years the current quotas were based on shaky science, and questions whether they were necessary in the first place.  New York fisheries officials cited flawed data on menhaden landings when deciding not to comply with the quota.  In New York as well as with the harvesters other than Omega Protein, the fish are caught and sold as bait for commercial and recreational fishing.

“We really need a good, defensible, reliable stock assessment to tell us what the health of the stocks is along the East Coast.  We don’t feel that was used when applying the quotas,” Landry said.

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