May 16, 2019

Attack by Menhaden Industry Unites the Conservation Community

Conservationists fear that the fox could end up guarding the henhouse in menhaden certification process

In a biting piece of satire in the May 2019 issue of Sport Fishing Magazine, editor Doug Olander took aim at Omega Protein’s efforts to have its industrial harvest of menhaden certified as a sustainable fishery by the Marine Stewardship Council. The company apparently took issue with Mr. Olander’s characterization of the process as Omega “buying its way to respectability” and looking to “wrap itself in a cloak of respectability by claiming it’s a certified sustainable fishery.”

Omega Protein stated in its media response:

Mr. Olander isn’t just wrong about the independence and integrity of the MSC process; he gets key facts wrong about the fishery, making wild, misleading claims. He blames the ‘industrial menhaden-reduction fishery’ for current problems facing striped bass. But this ignores all of the available evidence. According to the ASMFC, striped bass are overfished, and overfishing of the species by recreational anglers has been cited as the main cause, the same anglers which are Mr. Olander’s primary audience. The issues facing striped bass are due to overfishing.

Omega’s eagerness to silence critics and divert attention to anything other than its own operations for the problems in the striped bass fishery is nothing new. The menhaden reduction fishery is a true relic of the past and one of the most reviled in the entire country. Using spotter planes and a purse seine fleet to encircle and remove entire schools of menhaden, Omega catches millions of pounds of one of the most important sources of forage along the Atlantic Coast every year, and reduces them to fish oil pills and feed for aquaculture operations, among other things.

Anglers in the region have long believed the company’s relentless pressure on menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay, the primary nursery ground for striped bass and many other sportfish, has caused localized depletions of forage, leading to an increase in diseased, stressed, and skinny fish in the Bay.

Striped bass are indeed experiencing overfishing, and anglers are acting to reverse that trend by working with managers to reduce limits and curb catch-and-release mortality. But a prolonged period of low striped bass spawning success is a large part of the problem.

That may very well be tied to inadequate forage in the Bay, no matter how much Omega would like to protest otherwise. In fact, the best available evidence is that the reduction fishery may be driving a nearly 30-percent reduction in striped bass.

Mr. Olander is certainly not alone in questioning the Marine Stewardship Council and its practices. In the past, the MSC has been funded in part from royalties paid by seafood processors using the MSC ecolabel.

Third-party certifiers are paid by the entity seeking certification, and if the certification is successful, those third-party certifiers often receive long-term contracts to monitor chain-of-custody of the products and update reviews of the fishery every five years. In other words, both the MSC and the independent reviewers stand to benefit financially from a successful certification.

In 2011, the science journal NATURE published a sharp critique of the MSC process, claiming that after the signing of a contract between the MSC and Wal-Mart, the number of certified seafood products skyrocketed. One of the fisheries that qualified for possible certification around that time was the U.S. Southeast Coast swordfish and big eye/yellowfin tuna fisheries.

At the time, Billfish Foundation President Ellen Peel remarked, “It is inconceivable that the MSC could grant approval to longline gear that causes 90 percent of the mortality on marlins, spearfish, and sailfish bycatch across the Atlantic.”

Photo by Stephan Lowy.

Even today, when entities formally object to a certification—as Coastal Conservation Association, the American Sportfishing Association, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, the Nature Conservancy and the Chesapeake Bay Foundation are currently doing with Omega’s menhaden certification—an independent adjudicator decides whether they have “a reasonable prospect of success.” If so, the objectors are then required to pay a roughly $6,000 “objection fee” to proceed.

It is easy to get the feeling that the MSC process is less about sustainability and more about whose pockets are deep enough.

In January 2019, the state of Virginia formally notified the MSC of its opposition to certification of the menhaden fishery. In April 2019, New York Governor Andrew Cuomo signed legislation to protect menhaden in New York’s waters by prohibiting harvest by purse seine, essentially rejecting the industrial harvest of menhaden.

These two states, along with conservation groups and tens of thousands of concerned anglers, all share the same deep-rooted concerns that management efforts to date have failed to account for the menhaden’s critical ecological role in the Atlantic coastal ecosystem. There are huge unknowns about the bycatch associated with Omega’s menhaden harvest, and while Omega claims menhaden aren’t overfished, the amount of menhaden needed for the ecosystem is still being investigated by a dedicated team of assessment scientists expected to be concluded at the end of this year.

So, it remains unclear why MSC would certify the fishery now instead of waiting for the results of this assessment.

Mr. Olander is correct to question whether the fox is guarding the henhouse when it comes to MSC certification of Omega’s industrial menhaden fishery. The company’s aggressive tactics to silence critics, like Olander, should only serve as a warning that more light needs to be cast on this entire process.

The preceding editorial is submitted by the Coastal Conservation Association, American Sportfishing Association, and Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

17 Responses to “Attack by Menhaden Industry Unites the Conservation Community”

  1. Mike Dwyer

    Menhaden are a keystone species, filter feeding clarifies the water allowing sunlight to reach eelgrass beds and promote scallop and juvenile fish habitats…. and are a huge source of food not just for bass but many predators … bluefish, weakfish, fluke and including whales….!! This same protein can be naturally derived from other sources …,! No need to slaughter menhaden …!

  2. Wesley Banks

    Purse seining should be banned everywhere. Not only does it sweep the area clean of the target fish, but the bycatch includes so many other sea creatures that are endangered.

  3. Bernardino Rubalcaba

    I am a fly fisherman from New Hampshire. We fish for Stripe Bass along our harbors and estuaries. It all barbless hook and catch and release. It a multi-million sportfishing industry. The loss to the tourist business if Stripe Bass were to disappear would be terrible.

  4. I was a Research Fisheries Biologist studying the migrations and population dynamics of Atlantic and Gulf menhaden from 1967 to 1974. These fisheries had been over-fished since the end of WW II and the use of aerial spotter planes to find the menhaden schools and guide the setting of the purse seines. At the time, the gigantic 1958 Atlantic Menhaden year class carried the steady expansion of the fisheries through about 1963. After that, the over-developed fisheries (too many boats and processing plants) led to the steady decline of the catch, even with increased effort. Unfortunately, there were no sport fishing and conservation groups acting on behalf of the menhaden at that time. KEEP UP THE GOOD WORK!

  5. Edward Wright

    Thank you for bringing this conservation issue to light, so many non-coastal sportsman don’t here about “ industrial fishing” , and unfortunately are not supporting due to ignorance, and I am one who was until now. This needs a clear eyes view by biologist in the marine field and sent in a report to Dept of interior , and USFW as well.

  6. Byrd B. Gossett

    After Perry Duryea’s (sp??), seafood butchershops out on East End L.I. ceased operations, the striper fishery rebounded. Now the “Bunker Boats” are out (well, they’ve always been there), are trying to do to this important East Coast fishery, what the netters did to the Florida baitfish ( and ultimately the sportfishing business) in the 90’s until they were stopped by Florida.s net ban. Why do these guys think that everything that swims belongs to them???

  7. Greg Svendsen

    Why we continue to allow our bait fish to be over fished is unknown to me. Herring in Alaska where I live is harvested heavily and we wonder why our salmon and whales etc. are having problems. Same with sardines in other parts of the world.

  8. Wendelin Giebel

    The mathematical model estimating spawning mass and used to set menhaden catch quotas is easily manipulated by Federal employees working for ASMFS and NMFS. Several high level career menhaden science managers later went on to work for Omega and its associates .
    Perhaps two or three of the ASMFC “ Commissioners” voting on catch limits understand the mathematical model. There are no naturalists, ecologists or marine biologists in the peer review pool. The consists of applied statistician only. I doubt some of them have ever seen a menhaden in the water. The total allowable catch should be reduced by half to maintain our predators reliant on menhaden for reproductive successes . The peer reviewers have to go and people who are out on the resources should be critiquing the results of the model . 150k comments to ASMFC asking them to significantly reduce catch ignored again . This is laughable.

  9. Garth walker

    I am the person that uncovered all the deceit by the federal fisheries commissions. The computer man for the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission resides in my home town, Ocean Springs. He knew I would never give up so he invited me into the federal computer to see the truth. The truth is Omega Protein has supplied all the “So Called” Science for the entire industry for forty years. I was also at the original meetings with MSC so called certification group. 3 men from Ireland that do not go on boats, do not take in account bi-catch, do not take in account of mammals killed or collateral damage to the 100 other species that depend on menhaden for essential nutrition. The whole industry is rigged from the Department of Commerce down. And the information flow is from Omega Protein Scientist to GSMFC to ASMFC o NOAA> DEPT of Commerce. We have all been lied to and the damage to the National Fishery is irreparable and catastrophic with collateral damage to 100 plus species. The menhaden industry must be shut down and all of the culprits sent to jail.

  10. Garth walker

    The list of crimes committed by Omega Protein and its employees are. 1-Breaking “Jones Act” the fabric of maritime law to protect US Citizens. Omega Protein is now owned by a Candian Company Cooke Inc out of Brunswick Canada. It is illegal for a foreign entity to own American Flag Vessels and create commerce in US waters. 2. Breaking the Clean Water Act on many occasions, polluting the same water they fish. 3.-Gross Sientific Malpractice by using science as a tool against all of us. 4-Gross mis-management of Natural Resourcesby killing 2 billion pounds of fish and mammals. 5-Breaking the Marine Mammal Act by killing dolphin as bi-catch.

  11. john marrapese

    Omega needs to be shutdown completely and virginia needs to follow the lead of every other east coast state. The bay will thrive if Menhaden come all the way up the bay unabated, shut them down now.

  12. Ron Williams

    Omega ( under the new Boat Company Name( Alpha Vessel Co ) is currently being sued in Mississippi for events resulting from OSHA and Clean Water Act violations. They have already admitted the OSHA violations other Violations By Alpha are pending.

  13. Garth Gilchrist Walker

    300 million pounds out of the Mississippi Sound, with 5-10 percent bi-catch. The Gulf States Marine Fishery Commission is in Ocean Springs, MS, 15 miles from the Omega Protein plant. I went there and spoke with an employee that let me look into the computer and see that they have 40 years of falsified science. Omega Protein Scientist provide all of the information on stock, and sustainability. The Omega Protein and Daybrook Fishery sit as chairs on the board. They are called the menhaden reduction industry. This is what they were set out to do by the Department of Commerce, and NOAA. It was never about conservation. It has always been on taking as much as you can from any source. SHUT OMEGA DOWN!

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May 9, 2019

Where There’s Grass, There’s Bass… and Redfish and Specks

Restoring vegetation on the Gulf coastline is helping to improve your chance of landing bigger trout and redfish

Freshwater anglers have long understood that finding grass means finding the bass.

In the last decade, saltwater fishermen in Louisiana have begun to understand that it’s not just largemouth bass that love to live, lurk, and feed in submerged grass beds. Popular brackish-marsh dwellers, like speckled trout and redfish, utilize this subsurface vegetation, as well.

Throughout the late summer and into the spring, speckled trout cruise the edges of grass beds in marshes, coastal lakes, and bays eating shrimp, mullet, menhaden, crabs, and even bluegill, shad, and other freshwater forage. Juvenile trout spend much of their first few months in the grass, as well—eating and hiding from predators.

Redfish from two to 25 pounds live in and around the submerged vegetation, too, using clumps and pockets in the grass as ambush points. In fact, they are usually sharing these same dents and pockets with largemouths.

Few things in angling match the excitement of a 10-pound redfish demolishing a topwater frog or a buzzbait meant to lure a bass from a grassy shoreline.

In addition to the enormous benefits for sportfish, forage fish, and migrating waterfowl, submerged grasses help to break up wave action, filter out suspended sediment, and infuse dissolved oxygen into the water. This protects sensitive marshy shoreline while improving water quality.

Submerged grass beds had become scarce in many of the marshes of Southeast Louisiana in the 1980s and 90s.

Annual flooding of the Mississippi River had been largely cut off from coastal marshes by levees and canals—like the ill-fated Mississippi River Gulf Outlet (MRGO) in St Bernard Parish and the Barataria Waterway in Jefferson Parish—while hundreds of oil field canals were allowing saltwater to intrude deep into brackish and freshwater marshes and swamps.

The salt water killed off hundreds of thousands of acres of grass beds, along with large expanses of coastal oak and cypress forests, reducing the productivity of coastal fisheries, weakening already-loose marsh soils, and making coastal communities more vulnerable to the winds, waves, and storm surges from hurricanes and tropical storms.

This vulnerability was on full display during Hurricane Katrina, as storm surge flowed freely through the MRGO, across the degraded marshes and dead cypress swamps, and straight into the heart of New Orleans communities.

This redfish was caught in scattered submerged grass in a small marsh pond near the mouth of the Atchafalaya River in Terrebonne Parish. (May 2019)

Fortunately, efforts over the last 20 years to restore Louisiana’s coast and control salinity levels have facilitated the return of submerged grass beds, especially in the marshes east of the Mississippi River and around Lake Pontchartrain. Marshes that held a few redfish and some seasonal speckled trout have become incredibly productive bass fisheries, while still offering excellent opportunities to catch speckled trout from early fall until the early spring and to land trophy reds year round. Ducks have returned to some of those spots too.

Lower salinity levels have also provided an opportunity for Louisiana’s Coastal Protection and Restoration Authority and non-profit groups, like the Lake Pontchartrain Basin Foundation and America’s Wetland Foundation, to replant cypress trees to replace the ones killed by saltwater intrusion and timber harvest in the last century.

Louisiana’s ongoing efforts to divert sediment and freshwater from the Mississippi into coastal marshes and rebuild natural coastal barriers will go a long way toward allowing submerged vegetation to return—further improving fish and waterfowl habitat and protecting coastal communities.

Our fisheries will change, and so will the way we fish, as freshwater and sediment is reintroduced. But, as many Louisiana anglers have found out in the last two decades, it will be a change for the better.

To learn more, watch our video on the importance of vegetation to the health of Louisiana marshes.

To advocate for the construction of diversions to restore the Mississippi River Delta, please log on to www.coastal.la.gov.

April 12, 2019

Lawmakers Introduce Bipartisan Bill to Strengthen the Marine Food Web

Forage Fish Conservation Act would improve recreational fishing opportunities

U.S. Representatives Debbie Dingell (D-Mich.) and Brian Mast (R-Fla.) have introduced legislation to promote responsible management of forage fish—the smaller bait fish that larger sportfish rely on for food.

The Forage Fish Conservation Act would address a decline in forage fish populations, strengthen sportfish populations, and support better recreational fishing opportunities. Forage fish populations have been declining due to numerous pressures, including changing ocean conditions, and this legislation takes steps to support a more robust marine food web.

“This legislation uses sound science to preserve our nation’s fishing economy,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. “Declining populations of forage fish hurt the entire marine ecosystem and sportfishing opportunities. This bill will help prevent overfishing and create sustainable fisheries.  We appreciate Representative Dingell working with a broad coalition to advance conservation efforts across the country.”

The Forage Fish Conservation Act ensures that enough forage fish remain in the water by:

  • Providing a national, science-based definition for forage fish in federal waters.
  • Assessing the impact that a new commercial fishery could have on the marine ecosystem and coastal communities prior to the fishery being authorized.
  • Accounting for predator needs in existing management plans for forage fish.
  • Requiring that managers consider forage fish when establishing research priorities.
  • Ensuring scientific advice sought by fisheries managers includes recommendations for forage fish.
  • Conserving and managing river herring and shad in the ocean.
  • Preserving state management of forage fish within state waters.

The Forage Fish Conservation Act is also co-sponsored by Representatives Matt Cartwright (D-Pa.), Fred Upton (R-Mich.), Billy Long (R-Mo.), and Jared Huffman (D-Calif.)


Photo by the Chesapeake Bay Program via flickr.

March 27, 2019

Recreational Fishing Groups Formally Object to “Sustainable” Stamp on Menhaden Fishery

Mining the base of the food chain is neither sustainable nor economically justifiable

Today, three recreational fishing groups filed a formal objection against the Marine Stewardship Council’s recommendation that Omega Protein should receive a certification of sustainability for its U.S. Atlantic menhaden purse-seining operations. The Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, American Sportfishing Association, and Coastal Conservation Association signed onto the objection, filed with MSC’s leaders in the United Kingdom.

The industrial harvest of this important forage fish by a single foreign-owned company, Cooke Inc.’s Omega Protein, has a negative impact on striped bass and other sportfish that rely on menhaden for food. Earlier this month, MSC—a private international organization, not a government entity—signaled that it would likely put its stamp of approval on Omega’s menhaden reduction fishing operation, in which the oily baitfish is harvested and reduced into meal, pet food, and other products.

MSC reached this conclusion in spite of the fact that menhaden stocks are less than half of what they would be without industrial harvest, which currently suppresses the striped bass stocks on the East Coast by about 30 percent. Striped bass are the single most valuable marine recreational fishery in the country.

“This certification would put a blue ribbon on the practice of robbing sportfish of their forage base, even as striped bass numbers decline in the Atlantic,” says Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP. His organization collaborated with a legal team to object to MSC’s findings and rallied individual anglers to sign an open letter opposing the certification. “We felt it was important to put pressure on MSC, in every venue possible, not to do this. It is irresponsible to call Omega’s operation sustainable when it affects striped bass numbers and the recreational fishing economy.”

MSC’s published assessment indicates that the certification of sustainability would be granted on the condition that Omega reach certain milestones over four years—not because the operation can be considered sustainable now. Sportfishing groups objected to the rationale behind two of these conditions and the MSC’s overall method of assessing the stock’s status.

“The MSC certification undermines ten years of work by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to establish ecosystem reference points for Atlantic menhaden, a process expected to be concluded in the next year,” says Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs for the American Sportfishing Association. “For sportfishing businesses on the East Coast, the stakes are very high going into the striped bass season. Menhaden are an important food source for striped bass, and the latest striped bass stock assessment shows a continued decline in spawning stock biomass. This is the worst possible time for MSC to make a misstep like this.”

“In Maryland, anglers are concerned with the health and future outlook for many different recreational fisheries in the Chesapeake Bay and Atlantic coast, and menhaden are a major piece of the ecological foundation and balance in the region,” says David Sikorski, executive director of CCA Maryland. “This is why we anxiously await management options to be unveiled after nearly 20 years of conversation on how to manage these important fish for their role in the ecosystem. It would be negligent for MSC to hand out its certification just as the game is about to change.”


Top photo by Stephan Lowy

March 22, 2019

Video: Something’s Fishy With This Announcement About Atlantic Menhaden

When there’s not enough bunker left in the water to support striped bass, can you really call commercial harvest of these forage fish sustainable?



Theodore Roosevelt’s experiences hunting and fishing certainly fueled his passion for conservation, but it seems that a passion for coffee may have powered his mornings. In fact, Roosevelt’s son once said that his father’s coffee cup was “more in the nature of a bathtub.” TRCP has partnered with Afuera Coffee Co. to bring together his two loves: a strong morning brew and a dedication to conservation. With your purchase, you’ll not only enjoy waking up to the rich aroma of this bolder roast—you’ll be supporting the important work of preserving hunting and fishing opportunities for all.

$4 from each bag is donated to the TRCP, to help continue their efforts of safeguarding critical habitats, productive hunting grounds, and favorite fishing holes for future generations.

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