The objections raised by sportfishing groups in opposition to certification of the industrial Atlantic menhaden fishery as a “sustainable fishery” are scheduled to be heard by an independent adjudicator on July 8 and 9.
In March, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Coastal Conservation Association, and American Sportfishing Association filed an objection—which was later combined with a similar objection raised by The Nature Conservancy and Chesapeake Bay Foundation—to the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) recommendation that Omega Protein should receive a certification of sustainability for its U.S. Atlantic menhaden purse-seining operations.
Next week’s adjudication hearing is a significant step forward in the effort to ensure there is a healthy forage base for striped bass and other important sportfish in the Chesapeake Bay and all along the East Coast.
“To make it to the next stage of this process with a hearing and oral arguments is significant in that the independent adjudicator clearly recognizes that our objections have merit,” said David Sikorski, executive director of CCA Maryland. “The MSC process is not entirely predictable and has been criticized in the past as being far too aligned with commercial interests. We are encouraged that the very real concerns raised in our objection have had an impact.”
The recreational fishing community has long believed that Omega Protein’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. The TRCP, ASA, and CCA objected to many of the certification findings and scores, including one that would grant the certification of sustainability on the condition that Omega reach certain milestones over four years, and not because the operation can be considered sustainable now.
“Certifying the Atlantic Menhaden fishery as sustainable at this time could undermine efforts at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to establish management that considers the entire ecosystem,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP. “Striped bass populations are shrinking and there is evidence that removal of forage has contributed to that. We should be making sure that conservation measures are being enacted now—not years down the road.”
In the past, the MSC’s impartiality has been questioned since it has been funded in part from royalties paid by the very seafood processors seeking to use 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 third-party certifiers stand to benefit financially from a successful certification.
In 2011, the prestigious science journal NATUREpublished a sharp critique of the MSC process, claiming that after the signing of a contract between the MSC and Walmart, the number of certified seafood products skyrocketed.
“We are committed to participating in this process and raising the concerns of the recreational fishing community, because once the sustainable label is bestowed on a fishery, it will be much more difficult to make needed management changes to that fishery,” said Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs at the American Sportfishing Association. “That is particularly perilous when certifying a fishery that targets a forage base on which so many sportfish depend.”
While it is not known what fees Omega has paid to the MSC to pursue certification, the TRCP, ASA, and CCA have been required to pay a £2500 (or roughly $3,150) “objection fee” to the London-based MSC to make their case in this next round of the process.