The menhaden reduction fishing industry is getting defensive. Ever since Canadian-owned Omega Protein (Cooke Inc.) caught whole schools of “the most important fish in the sea” from the mouths of juvenile humpback whales feeding in the New York Harbor — as whale watchers looked on in horror — the company has issued numerous statements trying to justify their actions.   

This Canadian company claims that everything is fine, and it blames the public for over-reacting. Yet it refuses to answer the question of why the reduction fleet had to motor 275 miles north to New York to find fish and it falsely claims that the fishery is managed to account for the needs of predators like whales. In its latest press release, the company attempts to hide its behavior in a “school” of other industrial fishing operations. 

MORE: Menhaden Facts, Not Paid Industry Spin

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The menhaden reduction fishery is the largest industrial fishery in the continental United States. It literally catches billions of fish per year which it grinds up for use as companion pet food and aquaculture feed for about 8 cents a pound. How could an industry of this magnitude have its feelings hurt because the public expresses concern about its fishing practices? 

Every East Coast state, save Virginia, has already banned reduction fishing. That’s because wise state officials realized that menhaden are far more valuable when left in the water to feed predators like striped bass, whales, and osprey. Recreational fishing, eco-tourism, and even small boat commercial fishing operations have been the beneficiaries of this foresight. As a charter boat business owner, I can attest to the positive impact on my business. When we have abundant baitfish (menhaden) in our waters, the gamefish eat well, stay local and charter bookings increase. As we say, No Bunker = No Bass!

For more than 100 years, people have been complaining about reduction fishing. In 1882, for example, U.S. Sen. W.J. Sewell of New Jersey said that “The evil is a crying one and must be suppressed by the best means at hand.”  Well,  states have acted, but the federal government has not. 

Now, Cooke Inc. claims that their fishing practices are endorsed by other industrial fishing interests in New York and New Jersey, including the Garden State Seafood Association and Long Island Commercial Fishing Association.  Well, perhaps they are. That’s because large commercial fishing interests have agreed to stick together on any number of issues. Whether its squid, Atlantic herring, surf clams, mackerel, or shad, these groups have a vested interest in maximizing the exploitation of public resources for private profit. 

Cooke has a long and colorful history of flouting environmental regulations. Recently, one of Cooke’s floating salmon farms on the West Coast let hundreds of thousands on non-native Atlantic salmon loose in the Pacific Ocean. This event was completely preventable and resulted from the buildup of tons of biofouling (mussel and marine life build-up), which the company negligently failed to remove. It is estimated that 206,000 fish are still at large, putting native salmon populations at risk. 

And recently on the East Coast, another net failure allowed thousands of farmed raised salmon to escape. When Cooke tried to recapture the escaped fish, the company then proceeded to entangle a humpback whale in a gill net. In general, salmon pens have numerous environmental drawbacks, including biological waste, virus and parasite amplification, antibioticsand chemicals usage — all of which can lead to diminished water quality, algal blooms and dead zones. 

In Washington state, elected officials have taken the bold step of banning open pen salmon farming.

States are taking the lead to ban reduction fishing and to prevent the worst practices of this industrial fishing company. And now is the time for our federal elected officials to act. 

Americans, beware: The entire Atlantic Seaboard and the Gulf of Mexico are now in Cooke’s portfolio. For a foreign company to own the largest fishery in the continental United States is amazing, especially under President Trump and this administration. Thousands of domestic jobs and families depend upon a healthy, robust coastal ecosystem to provide abundant gamefish, healthy marine mammals and clean water.

Cooke no longer hide in the safety of the school of commercial fishing interests. Reduction fishing and open pen salmon farming are particularly destructive fishing practices, which adversely impact the ecosystem and the economy. It’s time to for our elected officials to stand up to this nonsense. 

So, before Cooke whines in the media again about how unfair it is for the public to express concern about the company’s fishing practices, perhaps it should first reflect on how fortunate it is to prosecute this fishery at all. Cooke should be supporting the new catch cap in the Chesapeake Bay, the mother of all coastal nurseries. It should be actively working to get a catch limit in the Gulf of Mexico, and it should support a new management system that recognizes the ecological role of menhaden — even if this means a substantial reduction in catch. 

Cooke must recognize that the menhaden fishery is the lynchpin to the entire food web. Menhaden populations must be maintained at robust levels to ensure that they continue to provide keystone ecosystem services, like water filtration, as they convert algae and other micro-organisms into a compact, protein-filled package that countless other gamefish, birds and mammals depend upon for survival.

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.