The little fish called menhaden has probably flown beneath the radar for most Americans — the small, oily baitfish are not good for eating — by humans, anyway.
But menhaden are crucial to species including striped bass, bluefin tuna, bluefish, weakfish, tarpon, summer flounder, and sharks, and are getting increasing attention since Omega Proteins, headquartered in Canada, has sought certification that the fishery is sustainable.
The two U.S. menhaden fisheries are in the Chesapeake Bay and the Gulf, Center for Sportfishing Policy president Jeff Angers told Trade Only Today.
More menhaden (also called bunker) are commercially harvested each year than any other fish in the continental U.S. — more than a million are caught per trip and more than 150,000 metric tons are caught per year, putting predators at risk and undermining the health of the marine ecosystem, according to the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
First, Omega Proteins sought certification in the Atlantic fishery from SAI Global — an independent firm that recommended that the Marine Stewardship Council, a private international institution, certify the Atlantic menhaden fishery sustainable.
Now it has sought the same certification in the Gulf of Mexico, according to a joint statement from the American Sportfishing Association, the Coastal Conservation Association, and the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.
“The ASA, Theodore Roosevelt , and CCA, have formally objected to that certification,” Mike Waine, Atlantic Fisheries policy director, told Trade Only Today about the Atlantic certification. “The basis of our objection is, currently menhaden are scientifically assessed as a single stock, but because so much of the ecosystem relies on menhaden — bluefish, striped bass, and a lot of birds — the management group is currently working on incorporating the predatory demand on menhaden into their assessment of the menhaden population.”
The current certification overlooks the fact that a 10-year study focused on menhaden’s sustainability as a forage fish is due in 2020, said Waine.
“Because currently the management body uses what is called a single-species assessment, it looks at menhaden specifically as its own population, without incorporating their importance in the ecosystem,” said Waine. “This study has been going on for so many years, and everyone knows it’s coming. So, why make an assessment like this?”
In March, the three groups filed a formal objection against the Marine Stewardship Council’s recommendation that Omega Protein should receive a certification of sustainability for its U.S. Atlantic menhaden purse-seining operations.
“Obviously that process costs money,” said Waine, and the process is complicated.
Omega Protein has been targeting Chesapeake Bay menhaden for its products including fish oil supplements and pet foods, according to an op-ed in The Virginian-Pilot that ran April 22.
The company hired an independent assessment body to assess their practices against the standards that MSC creates, said Waine.
Certification is paid for by the fishery client. The MSC does not receive payment, only the certification body chosen by the company. Anecdotal information from certified fisheries suggests the cost can vary from $15,000 to $120,000. The cost depends on the complexity of the fishery, the availability of information, and the level of stakeholder involvement, according to the MSC.
That steep price caused Sport Fish Magazine writer Doug Olander to pen a satirical op-ed, saying he’d paid a company to certify him as one of the United State’ Truly Outstanding Editors.
That prompted a swift backlash by Omega Proteins, which released a statement saying that “editor Doug Olander makes accusations of impropriety rather than critiquing the fishery, the independent assessment or the MSC process on its merits.”
“According to the ASMFC [Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission], striped bass are overfished, and overfishing of the species by recreational anglers has been cited as the main cause, the same anglers which are Mr. Olander's primary audience,” the statement said. “The issues facing striped bass are due to overfishing.”
That prompted the coalition of sportfishing and conservation groups to respond.
“Striped bass are indeed experiencing overfishing and anglers are acting to reverse that trend by working with managers to reduce limits and curb catch-and-release mortality, but a prolonged period of low striped bass spawning success is a large part of the problem,” the statement read. “That may very well be tied to inadequate forage in the Bay, no matter how much Omega would like to protest otherwise. In fact, the best available evidence is that the reduction fishery may be driving a nearly 30 percent reduction in striped bass.”
In the past, the MSC has been funded in part from royalties paid by seafood processors using the MSC ecolabel, according to that statement.
“Third-party certifiers were paid by the entity seeking certification, and if the certification was successful, those third-party certifiers often received long-term contracts to monitor chain-of-custody of the products and update reviews of the fishery every five years,” it said. “In other words, both the MSC and the independent reviewers stood to benefit financially from a successful certification.”
“There is a host of unknowns surrounding this industrial fishery, and yet the MSC continues to rapidly move forward,” said Coastal Conservation president Patrick Murray in the statement regarding Gulf menhaden. “Sustainability obviously means different things to different people, and we continue to have significant concerns about this certification.”