Why Omega Protein has stirred up a big stink about a small fish

A group of Omega Protein fishing boats in the Mississippi Sound south of Long Beach clean up a spill in 2009.
A group of Omega Protein fishing boats in the Mississippi Sound south of Long Beach clean up a spill in 2009. amccoy@sunherald.com File

The disagreement between activists and Omega Protein depends on the answer to a simple question: Are there enough menhaden in the Gulf of Mexico?

Omega says there are plenty, and it wants to keep it that way. Members of the Sierra Club Gulf Coast Group, the Coastal Conservation Association and other groups have their doubts.

It’s an argument recreational fishermen and conservationists have been having with Omega for years. Omega has a menhanden reduction plant in Moss Point and regularly fishes the Mississippi Sound. The opposition to its activities began anew with vigor earlier this year when Omega began seeking a “certified sustainable seafood” designation from the Marine Stewardship Council. MSC is a London-based nonprofit (although it collects royalties from licensing its “ecolabel”) that was set up in 1997 by the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever, a global conglomerate that was at the time one of the world’s largest producers of frozen seafood.

The “blue tick” label from MSC signifies the product comes from a sustainable fishery. It is similar to the “dolphin free” label put on qualifying cans of tuna or the Environmental Working Group Verified label that it applies to cosmetics that pass its muster.

So why would Omega — which already is a “Friend of the Sea,” another international sustainability status from an organization in Milan, Italy — stir up its opposition by going after a second sustainability label? There is some evidence that the labels improve a company’s image and increase the price consumers are willing to pay more for products they believe are sustainable.

“(MSC) are the gold standard of third-party certifiers of certain fisheries,” said Ben Landry, director of public affairs for Omega. “You see a lot of pressure on a global scale for these fisheries to get certified by MSC. With both the Gulf and Atlantic stocks in good shape according the most recently available science, this is a good time to move forward with it.”

Several conservation groups wrote the Sun Herald a lengthy letter detailing their problems with Omega’s attempt to get the MSC’s “blue tick” placed on its fish oil, animal food and other products. They want Mississippi to close or limit fishing for menhaden, as other states have.

“If Mississippi closed or limited the menhaden fishery, specks, white trout, ground mullet, flounder and larger species fished by big game anglers, such as mackerel, tarpon and tuna, would increase in number, and we could have more recreational fishing tourism profits,” says the letter signed by members of Sierra Club Coast Group, On Wings of Care, Gulf Restoration Network, Gulf Islands Conservancy Board and several individuals. “Commercial fishermen would see greatly increased profit, too. The money Omega Protein is drawing out of Mississippi could go into Coastians’ pockets. Menhaden are the “fuel” for our ecosystem and our economy. We don’t let hunters harvest deer with almost no regulation and little or no oversight, so why do we let this happen to our pogies? Stop the industrial pogy massacre by regulating or eliminating the menhaden reduction industry.”

That’s not likely to happen. Omega, founded in 1913, argues that science shows there are plenty of menhaden in the Gulf for both the Omega Protein boats and the predators, such as sharks, that feed on them.

“We’re pretty confident this stock is sustainably harvested,” Landry said. “I don’t think there’s a lot of biologists on either coast who are concerned this stock is troubled or is being overfished.”

Latest assessment

Omega said the stock assessment it relies on comes from the Gulf States Marine Fisheries Commission, which gathers a biologist from every Gulf state to serve on an assessment subcommittee.

Late last year, its latest report concluded the “Gulf of Mexico’s menhaden stock is not experiencing overfishing.”

And, the company has maintained over the years that it would be foolish for it to destroy the fishery that produces its products.

But activists also worry that Omega isn’t catching just menhaden when it closes its huge purse seine around a school of fish.

“Dolphin follow those menhaden,” Steve Shepard, chairman of the Sierra Coast Group, told the club at a July meeting. “Red fish follow those menhaden. Flounder follow those menhaden. Speckle trout follow the menhaden. White trout and ground mullet, just about everything we care about follow those menhaden.

“Omega will tell you they catch nothing but menhaden. Their crews are trained to say they catch nothing but menhaden.”

The secret of the catch

Omega agrees that it does catch fish other than menhaden. But it said that is a very small percentage of its catch, and the few assessments that have been done have agreed the bycatch is insignificant.

“Omega keeps its bycatch secret,” Shepard said. “No one is allowed to see those fish offloaded. No one is allowed to see the fish caught.”

And, to some extent, that is true. Skyler R. Sagarese, Matthew A. Nuttall, Joseph E. Serafy and Elizabeth Scott Denton’s “Review of the bycatch in the Gulf menhaden fishery with implications for the stock assessment of red drum” noted that it did not use bycatch data from a 2011 observation because it was considered confidential under the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act because only two companies make up that fishery.

Omega and Daybrook Fisheries Inc. of Louisiana are those two companies.

Still, all of the evidence supplied by Sierra and the other groups was anecdotal, such as a story passed along about a fisherman who said he saw a dolphin jump out of a menhaden net with a Spanish mackerel in its mouth, or the former employee who said he saw buckets of shrimp removed from a menhaden catch, or the ship captain who said the menhaden boats seemed to be avoiding the Mississippi Sound, which he said could indicate there weren’t as many menhaden there as in the past, or the fact that tarpon have virtually disappeared from Coast waters.

Some of the activists caught up with SAI Global, the Ireland-based company that is assessing the stock for Marine Stewardship, when it visited the Coast. SAI, which was hired by MSC, said it wasn’t interested in anecdotal evidence.

Omega’s favorite study

And Omega points to extensive studies by Richard Condrey of LSU that he said showed the bycatch in the early and mid-1990s was less than one-half of 1 percent of the catch, or insignificant.

“After regulators saw those studies, the studies to end all studies, they said we’re not going to devote precious research dollars to something that we kind of already know the answer to,” Landry said.

In Mississippi, the state Department of Marine Resources is responsible for keeping watch over Omega and other commercial fishing ventures as well as recreational and charter fishing.

Melissa Scallan, public affairs director for DMR, said its staff monitors Omega’s bycatch to make sure it complies with state law, which limits the bycatch of spotted seatrout, bluefish, Spanish mackerel, king mackerel, dolphin, pompano, cobia and jack crevalle. It also collects data on menhaden.

The critics say that if 100 million pounds of menhaden are caught, state law would allow 5 million pounds of other fish to be caught as well.

“Surely you have never certified any fishery as sustainable if the bycatch is secret?” Sierra Club asked SAI Gobal. SAI said they had, the club said in a letter to the Sun Herald.

Landry said Omega has had its problems. There have been deaths at its Moss Point plant, and its boats sometimes spill thousands of dead menhaden into the Mississippi Sound.

“Sometimes they end up on the beach and we take full responsibility for them and go and clean them up,” Landry said. “We caused the problem, we’re going to fix it.”

Learn more, comment

You can read more about the Marine Stewardship Council/SAI Global Assessment at goo.gl/7h5j6D

Comments/responses should be sent to:

Jean Ragg, programme administrator

Email: jean.ragg@saiglobal.com

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