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Protect Atlantic menhaden – Hold Omega Protein accountable

Lunge feeding on bunker

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Riverkeeper is seeking accountability for Omega Protein for exceeding its cap on the harvest of a vital species for the Hudson & entire East Coast.
Whale feeding on Atlantic menhaden. Photo: Artie Kopelman

[UPDATE, November 2019: During the ASMFC annual meeting in late October, both the Menhaden Management Board and the Menhaden Policy Board found the State of Virginia out of compliance resulting from Omega Protein’s defiant and deliberate overfishing of the Chesapeake Bay cap. The company’s quota will be reduced. Also, the “sustainable” labeling decision is being revisited by SAI Global, the company that evaluated Omega Protein for the Marine Stewardship Council. Click here to read more about these developments.]

Imagine deliberately speeding through a school zone and then telling the police:  “I don’t recognize your authority to enforce the laws. And I disagree with the science that set the limits in the first place.”

That’s essentially what Omega Protein is saying about its harvest of Atlantic menhaden, a vital forage fish for the Hudson River Estuary and the entire East Coast. Omega harvests vast amounts of Atlantic menhaden, known locally as “bunker,” and grinds them into fish meal and fish oil for various products.

The company, which holds an 85 percent stake of the menhaden fishery, is deliberately exceeding harvest quotas set by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission. By signaling that it will violate its 2019 cap in Chesapeake Bay, Omega is thumbing its nose at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the regulatory body representing the coastal Atlantic states to manage our fisheries across multiple jurisdictions, and all of us who have a collective interest in these fish. The cap was overwhelmingly approved by the ASMFC and agreed upon by Omega as a precautionary measure to ensure there is enough menhaden for other creatures that rely on these fish.

To make matters worse, Omega just received a “sustainable” fishery award from the Marine Stewardship Council, despite strong objections raised by countless environmental organizations including Riverkeeper. Omega Protein’s disregard for catch quotas continues a long history of damaging environmental actions that have included millions of dollars in fines for water quality violations. In August, the Securities Exchange Commission called it “a repeat offender of the Clean Water Act.”

Members of the public are pushing back. Earlier this year, after a campaign by Riverkeeper, Gotham Whale, The Nature Conservancy, Pew Charitable Trust, Save the Sound, Seatuck, Audubon, Earthjustice, Menhaden Defenders, recreational fishing captains, and many others, New York State banned the use of monstrous “purse seine” nets in state waters.

It’s time to make our voices heard again. Join us in contacting authorities in New York State and ASMFC. Urge then to hold Omega Protein accountable.

In the longer term, we are counting on the ASMFC to follow through on plans to improve the entire approach to managing this species from an ecosystem perspective. The new approach will examine and recognize the role of menhaden in the entire food web – accounting for prey and their predators – rather than just their individual status as a species. The value of menhaden will be determined by their role in the ecosystem first, and then human quotas will be assigned.

Menhaden are simply invaluable to their watery world. The high abundance of menhaden buffers depleted populations of river herring and shad from the effects of predatory fish. They are the preferred forage of striped bass, bluefish, tuna, codfish, whales, dolphins and osprey. And they help filter our waterways of excessive phytoplankton and algae caused by sewage contamination.

Remember: If you want striped bass, you need an abundance of menhaden. If you want to see whales and dolphins in New York Harbor, you need menhaden. Let’s do the right thing.


Does Atlantic menhaden fishery deserve ‘sustainable’ label? Not so fast.

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