Omega Protein Inc. spotter planes saw vast schools of older bunker in the New York/New Jersey area last week. So they sent their industrial fishing operation 275 miles north to catch millions of menhaden out of the mouths of whales that were lunge feeding less than a half a mile away.

Of course, this infuriated whale-watchers who were enjoying the show put on by more than a dozen humpback whales, but it also riled up the recreational fishermen who know that reduction fishing operations imperil gamefish. 

Now Omega Protein is complaining about unfavorable media coverage they received about the incidents, on TV News12, in the New York Times and in National Geographic.

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They put together a paid-for press release titled, “Contrary to Activist Claims, Omega Protein's Operations in Federal Waters Are Sustainable, Comply with Fisheries Regulations.”

Well . . . let’s analyze their claims a little more closely to see if they are reallycorrecting the record.”

Omega’s Claim: Over the past two weeks, activist groups, including Gotham Whale, the Teddy Roosevelt Conservation Partnership and Menhaden Defenders, have attacked Omega Protein's operations in federal waters off the New York and New Jersey coast. This has led to widespread misinformation about the health of the menhaden fishery and the company's operations.

Fact: For many years, there has been widespread concern about the adverse impacts of catching too many menhaden (bunker fish) in specific geographic areas including the New York and New Jersey coasts. Recreational fishermen, whale-watching operations and other commercial fishermen suffer the economic consequences of a locally depleted food chain. 

New Jersey and most other East Coast states banned the practice of reduction fishing because of these concerns. This is not a new issue, but it is becoming more pronounced with this latest excursion to New Jersey and New York EEZ (Exclusive Economic Zone) waters and it needs to be addressed right away by our elected officials. 

Fact: Omega Protein has a long history of flouting federal regulations, including numerous violations of the Clean Water Act and dozens of violations of federal Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA).  Omega’s Canadian parent company, Cooke Inc., has its own history of environmental problems, including multiple incidents of holding pen failures that released thousands of farmed salmon in places like Washington state and Nova Scotia.

It’s time to update our laws to require the ASMFC to manage for the health of the ecosystem, including consideration for the needs of marine mammals, predators and gamefish that rely on menhaden. 

Omega’s Claim: Missing from much of this debate is the fact that the Atlantic menhaden fishery is entirely sustainable. The last two stock assessments conducted by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and approved by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC), the interstate body that regulates menhaden fishing on the East Coast, found that menhaden is not overfished nor is overfishing occurring. These positive findings led the ASMFC to raise the coastwide menhaden quota in each of the last three years, most recently last November.

Fact: If you accept the science of NOAA/ASMFC — which many do not — and grant their claim that the Atlantic menhaden fishery is “sustainable,” their statement intentionally omits a very important point. It does not address the “sustainability” of species that rely on menhaden as forage. We all want a sustainable fishery for menhaden, but more importantly we want a sustainable marine ecosystem. The real concern is that a depleted menhaden stock will lead to collapses of predator species like humpback whales, striped bass, dolphins and osprey. This is true on a coastwide basis and in localized areas like the Chesapeake Bay and the NY/NJ Bight. 

Fact: The ASMFC is managing the menhaden stock using a “single species” approach that does not account for the needs of predators. This outdated management system is a relic of the 20th century (just like the reduction fishery is a relic of the 19th century!). It’s time to update our laws to require the ASMFC to manage for the health of the ecosystem, including consideration for the needs of marine mammals, predators and gamefish that rely on menhaden. 

Omega’s Claim: Concerns about bycatch from the fishery are also misplaced. According to NOAA's Chesapeake Bay Office, the menhaden fishery ''is one of the most selective, and effective fisheries, with a small bycatch.'' Marine mammal interactions — which are very rare — are actively monitored by NOAA.

Fact: While bycatch may be a low percentage of the menhaden fishery, the scale of the fishery is so large that even a small bycatch percentage is a big problem. If the bycatch of other species in the Atlantic menhaden fishery is just 1 percent, that equates to millions of pounds of wasted fish. And while marine mammal interactions may be rare, many believe that any interaction, especially removing forage fish in the immediate areas where marine mammals are feeding is wrong.

Contrary to their suggestion, NOAA does not have any observers on the Omega fishing vessels, unlike many other commercial fishing operations.  Just last month, Omega’s parent company Cooke Inc., entangled a humpback whale in their Canadian operations. The gill net was deployed to try to recapture farmed salmon that had escaped from their holding pens. So not only is the company entangling marine mammals, they are also putting wild salmon and local ecosystems at risk around the world. This fishery and this company are dirty and should be stopped from these irresponsible practices. 

Omega’s Claim: The company's recent trips to the New York, New Jersey area are perfectly in compliance with all state and federal regulations. Its fishermen are operating in federal — not state — waters, and the catches are being landed according to regulations in Virginia, as they are counted towards that state's annual allocation of the coastwide quota. 

Fact: It is legal for Omega Protein to practice menhaden reduction fishing in federal waters, as long as the catch is landed in Virginia. That does not mean, however that reduction fishing should be allowed in federal waters.  Every other state on the East Coast has banned the practice of reduction fishing, and it is time for the federal government to consider doing the same or push them off further from shore to ensure that coast ecosystems and economies remain intact.

Omega’s Claim: Critics have previously attacked the company for its operations in the Chesapeake Bay on the basis of localized depletion — even though, as NOAA Fisheries recently pointed out, studies have not found any evidence to substantiate those concerns.

Fact: Omega Protein vessels steamed 275 miles to the north to catch menhaden. If the fish are so plentiful in Virginia, why are they not fishing there?  Last year, Omega Protein was only able to catch 25 percent of its quota in the Chesapeake Bay. Conservationists in the region are deeply concerned about the availability of menhaden for striped bass and other species that rely on the Chesapeake as a nursery.

There is also great concern that the depleted numbers of filter feeding menhaden in the bay directly effect water quality by increasing algae blooms which can lead to dead zones that negatively impact the ecosystem of the entire region.  Now the concern is that Omega has put their sights on waters to the north.

There are no funds or plans in place to study local depletion and this is a major issue —  not only for the Atlantic Coast, but also for the Gulf (of Mexico) where waters are shallower and the impact from the directed mass scale fishery impacts anglers and the ecosystem even more. 

If Omega wants to continue to rely on a public resource for their private benefit, they should be required to prove that their fishery does not cause localized depletion, not the other way around.

Ben Landry (director of public affairs) and the public relations team at Omega Protein continue to spin half-truths and conjecture to make the last reduction fishery on the East Coast seem harmless.

At a visceral level, we know this cannot be true. Omega Protein is profiting from an operation that takes the “most important fish in the sea” and grinds it up to sell on an international commodities market — and to feed its dirty salmon farming operations — for 8 cents a pound. 

It’s clearly time for change. 

About the Author:

Capt. Paul Eidman is founder of Menhaden Defenders, a conservation advocacy group working to rebuild the Atlantic menhaden (bunker fish) population back to historic population levels from Maine to Florida. Eidman is a lifelong recreational angler and conservationist, and is owner and operator of Reel Therapy Fly & Light Tackle fishing charters, based in Monmouth County.