One company that undermines striped bass populations in the Atlantic is paying to put a blue ribbon on its harmful practices
Reduction fishing is the practice of “reducing” huge numbers of fish into oil and meal to be used in other products—primarily feed for other animals, like pets and farmed salmon. Perhaps it’s not a widely known term because reduction fishing is banned in states up and down the east coast, for decades in some places.
In fact, Virginia is the only state that continues to permit the last holdout of the reduction fishing industry in the Atlantic—a single company called Omega Protein, part of the Canadian-owned Cooke Inc.—to continue to fish for menhaden in this way.
The irony of taking forage fish out of the water that would naturally feed most of our ocean predators and grinding it up to feed farmed fish is not lost on anyone. And you don’t have to be a fisherman to understand that when you suck up the fish at the bottom of the food chain, everything else suffers. So, it should be no surprise that removing large quantities of menhaden has had a negative impact on striped bass fishing.
The menhaden reduction fishing industry accounts for 80 percent of the coastwide catch of these important forage fish. At this level of menhaden harvest, the striped bass population has declined by as much as 30 percent. In fact, the latest stock assessment is likely to show that striped bass are overfished.
Despite perpetuating an antiquated practice that reduces biomass of other fish species in the Atlantic, Omega Protein has applied to have the menhaden fishery certified as “sustainable” by the Marine Stewardship Council, a private international institution. This certification is strictly a pay-to-play arrangement, and it could successfully put a blue ribbon on fishing practices that rob anglers of our sportfishing opportunities. MSC does not even know how many predators rely on menhaden for food to determine if the fishery can legitimately be considered sustainable. Nobody does.
Now, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission—the multi-state agency that sets catch limits on menhaden—is working to get to the bottom of this key question, largely because of the recent outcry from sportsmen and women about the impacts of reduction fishing on sportfish populations.
Since November 2017, the ASMFC has had a scientific team working on a model to account for menhaden’s critical role to sportfish like striped bass and the broader ecosystem. And the truth is that no one can certify that the menhaden fishery is “sustainable” until that question is answered.
But it’s likely that MSC will grant the certification, despite publishing in its own report that the health of the striped bass population is directly linked to menhaden. (They also solicited public feedback as part of their determination, which could be overwhelming.)
Instead of certifying that the Atlantic menhaden fishery as sustainable, MSC should be calling on the industry to substantially reduce its catch, so that predators like striped bass don’t take a hit from the removal of 30 percent of their forage base. Further, Congress should put a stop to reduction fishing in the federal waters of the Atlantic, at least until striped bass have recovered.
In the meantime, we’ll do whatever we can to support the fisheries managers at the ASMFC in their efforts to analyze the actual impacts of reduction fishing of menhaden.
Top photo by Stephan Lowy