In a biting piece of satire in the May 2019 issue of Sport Fishing Magazine entitled “Certifiably Absurd,” 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 (MSC). 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,
“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 to spawn.
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 were paid by the entity seeking certification, and if the certification was successful, those third-party certifiers often received 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 stood 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.
“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,” remarked Billfish Foundation President Ellen Peel at the time.
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 judges 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 of this year, the State of Virginia formally notified the MSC of its opposition to certification of the menhaden fishery. In April, 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. Those 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 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 ecosystem reference points for menhaden.
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 him should only serve as a warning that more light needs to be cast on this entire process.
The preceding editorial is submitted by Coastal Conservation Association, Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and the American Sportfishing Association.