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Omega Protein’s numbers don’t add up, Sierra Club says

A fresh catch of Menhaden sits in the holding pen in the hull of a pogy boat. These fish were unloaded and processed at the Omega Protein plant in Moss Point.
A fresh catch of Menhaden sits in the holding pen in the hull of a pogy boat. These fish were unloaded and processed at the Omega Protein plant in Moss Point. ttisbell@sunherald.com File

Thanks, Sun Herald, for bringing the pogy boats to your front page (“Why Omega Protein has stirred up a big stink about small fish,” Aug. 14, 1A). We would like to respond.

Ben Landry, Omega Protein’s director of public affairs, says Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is the “gold standard” of sustainability certification. We’re scratching our heads as to why. Their fee is 0.5 percent of wholesale value, so they derive 73 percent of their income from licensing companies to use their logo. If they certify Omega, we estimate they’ll get about $15 million. With the MSC payment scheme, and without scientific consideration of bycatch, we must dismiss the Omega Protein sustainability certification as greenwashing.

Landry says the latest 2016 Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission (GSMFC) report says pogies are in good shape. However, the first biological reference points for Gulf menhaden weren’t set until a 2007 National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) study. How do modern numbers compare to the 1940s pogy population when the industry started here? He also says bycatch isn’t a problem, citing Richard Condrey’s mid-90s study — hardly reassuring over 20 years down the road. Is more up-to-date information available?

The Mississippi Department of Marine Resources (DMR) “monitors” bycatch and menhaden. Has BP money been appropriated for studies to document the historic populations of pogies compared to now, or studies on how modern harvest affects pogy and predator populations?

If the Department of Commerce has ruled bycatch is secret, how is that “available” science? If Omega’s bycatch is lawful, Sierra Club requests Omega voluntarily let DMR open the books on it for our review. To establish transparency, let DMR make surprise visits or install live streaming cameras on the boats, outside and inside the factory. Interested citizen volunteers can observe bycatch. Let us see and count for ourselves, take photos and shoot video. Every time a dolphin is allowed to escape the nets (assuming dolphin capture is extremely rare) under public observation, that is positive news for the fishery.

The Atlantic counterpart of the GSMFC ruled the industry was overfished in 2011 and set caps. Our pogy fishery has no cap. Since 2011, the industry here has doubled its take from Mississippi waters, according to numbers reported to National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) by the fishery: 184 million pounds of pogies brought into Mississippi in 2014 — up from 100 million in 2011.

Omega can’t change history or economics. All but one Atlantic state has banned purse seines or the commercial menhaden industry because of overfishing: Maine in 1879 after the fishery’s first historic collapse; Massachusetts and Connecticut followed; New York State then banned purse seines off Raritan Bay and Long Island; New Jersey banned commercial harvest in 2001; North Carolina in about 2010. Virginia is the exception — where plenty object to the fishery in the Chesapeake.

The industry is exponentially more deadly now than in the 1800s. Our pogies are no match for it. Seven spotter planes and seven boats with purse seines up to a mile long scour the Mississippi Sound from June through October harvesting menhaden.

Caps work. When the Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission cut menhaden caps by 20 percent in 2012 coastwide because of overfishing, the menhaden rebounded before the quota was raised again at the instigation of the menhaden industry (ASMFC.org).

Purse seine bans work. In New York, where there’s a purse seine ban, whales, dolphins and seals returned to New York’s Hudson River in 2017 after 100 years’ absence. Paul L. Sieswerda, of the advocacy group New York Gotham Whale, attributed the return of these mammals to an improved menhaden stock.

Florida prohibits purse seines and gill nets. Their recreational saltwater industry is worth $7.6 billion annually, and 109,300 jobs, says the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, (Source: NMFS, 2016 report, using 2014 NOAA data).

Strong limits on access work. Mississippi has about 1/30 of the area for tarpon and menhaden that Louisiana does, but we turn Omega Protein loose in 90 percent of it. Louisiana closes half its waters to Omega. Not coincidentally, we believe, Louisiana has plenty of tarpon for competitive rodeos and a recreational tarpon fishery.

A Department of Commerce Report, “Fisheries Economics of the U.S., 2015,” states Mississippi’s recreational saltwater fishing industry brings in $ 0.5 billion in total trip and durable goods expenditures, or about $11.3 million per mile for our 44-mile coast. Alabama’s take is $1.5 billion, coming to $28 million per mile for a 53-mile coastline. Alabama bans commercial menhaden harvest in three-fourths of their waters. The money Omega Protein draws out of Mississippi and sends to shareholders can go into Coastians’ pockets and state coffers.

Please view “Protect Our Pogies, Protect Coast Fishing” on Facebook.