Omega Protein harvests menhaden in Chesapeake Bay and in the Gulf of Mexico. The two fisheries are regulated by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) and Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission (GSMFC) respectively. Despite the sharp disagreements of some nonprofit observing organizations, such as the Pew Charitable Trusts and the Lenfest Ocean Program, the overall message of the report is that these fisheries are responsibly managed and have demonstrated resiliency over a long history of harvest.
“Official management bodies like the ASMFC and GSMFC, as well as independent, third party organizations like Friend of the Sea and the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership have all affirmed the health of Atlantic and Gulf menhaden,” said Peter Himchak, Omega Protein’s chief scientist.
New assessment model
The company has had a well-publicized row with ASMFC, and complied with a 20% reduction in the catch quota for the Atlantic fishery even though it believed that decision was the “result of a broken assessment model.” In the past year the regulatory body has overhauled its procedures, and the new assessment is much more in line with Omega Protein’s own findings and new, more liberal catch quotas have been set.
“This new assessment found that menhaden had not been overfished in decades, and that the stock was in far better shape than anyone had previously thought,” the company said.
“Both the ASMFC and the GSMFC conduct regular assessments of Atlantic and Gulf menhaden to evaluate the health of the stocks,” the report states. “According to the most recent assessments for both species (2015 for Atlantic menhaden and 2013 for Gulf menhaden), neither Atlantic nor Gulf menhaden are overfished, nor are they experiencing overfishing.”
The report states that fecundity of the Atlantic stocks measured in trillions of eggs produced has risen from a low in 1998 to a peak in 2009 of about 2 trillion eggs. In the Gulf, despite consistent fishing pressure, the overall menhaden biomass has held steady at about 2.5 million metric tons with a peak in 2010 of about 4.8 million tons.
Critics of the current management approach point to a recent study that says that fishing pressure tends to exacerbate the naturally population fluctuations of forage fish stocks, leading more frequent and more profound population crashes, with reverberating effects throughout the food chain. Omega Protein does state that an ecosystem-based management approach, as opposed to one based solely on stock assessements of a particular species, is the future of fisheries management. The new approach would look at the role that menhaden play in the overall health of the ecosystem. But the company’s report states that “this approach is a long term goal for menhaden management, rather than an immediately achievable objective. The scientific models and data required to implement such a strategy don’t yet exist in a form that can be confidently put to use.”
Omega Protein produces fish oil for supplements, fish meal for aquaculture and other uses and fish solubles from its fishing operations. The company is the largest fish oil refiner based in the United States, though it does not make up a large share of the global fish oil industry. In recent years the company has sought to diversify by moving into human nutrition markets, first by acquiring Cyvex Nutrition and then with later acquisitions of lipid ingredient specialist Bioriginal and whey producer Wisconsin Speciality Protein.