Credibility of the Marine Stewardship Council at Stake with Atlantic Menhaden Reduction Fishery

East Coast conservation groups and recreational fishing organizations recently objected to a recommendation by the consulting firm SAI Global to certify the industrial fishery for Atlantic menhaden as sustainable.

The recommendation came as part of Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification scheme which considers whether or not Omega Protein Inc. — a purse seining operation that “reduces” billions of fish meal and oil for use in pet food and aquaculture feed — fishes sustainably.

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Menhaden are often called “the most important fish in the sea” for the critical role they play in the marine ecosystem as forage food for dozens of predators, including bald eagles, ospreys, humpback whales, bluefin tuna, tarpon and striped bass.

“It would be a travesty if the Marine Stewardship Council agrees to certify this fishery,” said Paul Eidman of Menhaden Defenders. “Until menhaden are managed to account for the needs of predators, the MSC should hold off.”

“Omega Protein has literally been taking food right out of the mouths of the whales and dolphins feeding in the waters off of New York and New Jersey,” added Paul Sieswerda of Gotham Whale. “How can that possibly be considered sustainable?”

Cooke Inc., the Canadian company that recently acquired Omega Protein, now owns the only remaining reduction fishery on the East Coast. Each year, the Virginia-based subsidiary catches hundreds of millions of these “forage” fish and grinds them up for sale on a global commodities market.

Recent scientific studies have quantified the adverse impacts of the menhaden reduction fishery on other species, including a recent one from the University of Maryland which found that the reductionfishery reduced the striped bass biomass by 28 percent.

“As a striped bass fisherman, I find it repulsive that the reduction industry is allowed to deplete the striped bass fishery by almost 30 percent,” said John Bello of the Virginia Saltwater Sportfishing Association. “Instead of certifying the fishery as sustainable, elected officials should ban this antiquated practice altogether. Virginia should join every other East Coast state in the 21st century.”

The Marine Stewardship Council certification scheme is funded largely by the industrial fishing applicants who also choose which consultants will do the review.

“This is a pay-to-play system through and through,” said Eidman. “Otherwise, why would the industry be certified before meeting the MSC standard for forage fish management.”

“Certifying this fishery would be premature,” said George Jackman of Riverkeeper. “It’s like awarding a diploma to a student who hasn’t even enrolled in school.”

“Omega Protein has fought every conservation provision ever imposed on the fishery,” said Bello. “Why would anyone think that will change now?”

Many organizations recently submitted public comments prior to the January 14 deadline calling for the MSC to reject the Atlantic menhaden reduction fishery certification. The decision will be announced as soon as mid-February.