Fight against Atlantic menhaden certification moves to next round

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Photo from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Photo from the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership.

Objections raised by sportfishing groups that oppose certification of the industrial Atlantic menhaden as a “sustainable fishery” are scheduled to be heard by an independent adjudicator today and tomorrow.

In March, the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, Coastal Conservation Association and American Sportfishing Association filed an objection — later combined with a similar objection raised by The Nature Conservancy and Chesapeake Bay Foundation — to the Marine Stewardship Council’s recommendation that Omega Protein should receive a certification of sustainability for its Atlantic menhaden purse-seining operations.

Next week’s adjudication hearing is a “significant step forward” in the effort to ensure there is a healthy forage base for striped bass and other important sport fish in Chesapeake Bay and along the East Coast, according to the fishing groups.

“To make it to the next stage of this process with a hearing and oral arguments is significant in that the independent adjudicator clearly recognizes that our objections have merit,” said David Sikorski, executive director of CCA Maryland, in a statement. “The MSC process is not entirely predictable and has been criticized in the past as being far too aligned with commercial interests. We are encouraged that the very real concerns raised in our objection have had an impact.”

The recreational fishing community believes that Omega Protein’s pressure on menhaden in Chesapeake Bay, the primary nursery ground for striped bass and many other fish, has caused localized depletions of forage fish, leading to an increase in diseased, stressed and underweight fish in the Bay.

The TRCP, ASA and CCA objected to many of the certification findings and scores, including one that would grant the certification of sustainability on the condition that Omega reach certain milestones over four years, not because the operation can be considered sustainable now.

“Certifying the Atlantic menhaden fishery as sustainable at this time could undermine efforts at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission to establish management that considers the entire ecosystem,” said Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the TRCP. “Striped bass populations are shrinking, and there is evidence that removal of forage has contributed to that. We should be making sure that conservation measures are being enacted now, not years down the road.”

In the past, some groups have questioned MSC’s impartiality since it has been funded in part from royalties paid by the seafood processors seeking to use the MSC eco-label.

Third-party certifiers are paid by the entity seeking certification, and if the certification is successful, those third-party certifiers often receive long-term contracts to monitor chain-of-custody of the products and update reviews of the fishery every five years.

TRCP said that both the MSC and the third-party certifiers stand to benefit financially from a successful certification.

In 2011, the science journal Nature published a critique of the MSC process, claiming that after the MSC and Wal-Mart signed a contract, the number of certified seafood products skyrocketed. MSC released a statement to respond, saying that the scientific consensus underpinning the MSC standard had “encouraged significant support from fisheries.”

Subsequent articles exploring the MSC by other news outlets followed, including one from National Public Radio that said prior to the Wal-Mart agreement in 2006, MSC received only 7 percent of its revenue from licensing fees. By 2013, the fees generated more than half of the group’s revenue.

While it is unknown what fees Omega has paid MSC to pursue certification, the TRCP, ASA and CCA have been required to pay a roughly $3,150 “objection fee” to the London-based MSC to make their case in this next round of the process.

“We are committed to participating in this process and raising the concerns of the recreational fishing community because once the sustainable label is bestowed on a fishery, it will be much more difficult to make needed management changes to that fishery,” said Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs at the American Sportfishing Association. “That is particularly perilous when certifying a fishery that targets a forage base on which so many sport fish depend.”

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