On 18 May, the Omega Protein Corporation added two fishing vessels to its fishing fleet, which targets menhaden (Brevoortia tyrannus) in the waters off Virginia and North Carolina. Omega, the single largest producer of specialty fishmeal and organic fish solubles in the United States, is one of the leading fish oil producers worldwide. The menhaden fishery is the largest fishery by volume on the East Coast, and, up until recently, it was largely unmanaged despite the fact overfishing is generally considered to be occurring. In December 2012, the Atlantic Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) cut the total allowable catch for menhaden by 20 percent over protests from Omega and the states of Virginia, New Jersey and Maine. The two new Omega vessels, named F/V Rappahannock and the F/V Fleeton, are are state-of-the-art menhaden fishing vessels.
The Menhaden Fishery
The menhaden fishery is largely a reduction fishery, where the fish are ground up for the production of animal feed, fish oil dietary supplements and fertilizer. About 80 percent of the annual catch of menhaden on the Atlantic coast goes to this reduction fishery, and Omega is the largest commercial operator by far. In addition to the reduction fishery, recreational and commercial anglers value the species as an essential baitfish. Perhaps most important, menhaden is considered a critical species to the ecosystems in which it lives, and given its importance as a forage fish for larger fishes, seabirds and marine mammals, it is not uncommon to hear people refer to the small fish as “the most important fish in the sea.”
The bulk of the menhaden fishery is driven by fish oil applications. Fish oil is primarily used for both aquaculture and direct human consumption, with as much as 70% of market share going to aquaculture. Fish oil also has hydrogenation and industrial applications. While Europe was the largest consumer of fish oil in 2011, Asia and Latin America are expected to dramatically increase their consumption in the coming years secondary to an explosion of aquaculture operations in both regions. In the aquaculture industry, fish oil is used to feed, amongst other species, salmon, trout, carp and tilapia. Most fish oil is used for the farming of salmon and trout, which are primarily cultured in Chile and Peru. In a recent report, the global market for fish oil was valued at $1.1 billion in 2011 and is projected to reach $1.7 billion by 2018.
While there is plenty of demand for growth of the fish oil industry, production levels are not able to keep up with actual demand. The static nature of production is the result of myriad factors including overfishing, reduced fishing effort secondary to regulation and larger forces such as El Niño and global climate change.
While the ASMFC voted to cut the menhaden quota by 20 percent based on the data last December, others argued stocks were not overfished and that a 20 percent cut would have a deleterious impact on commercial menhaden fishers and the communities supported by the menhaden fishery. According to an Omega spokesperson, the company had to reduce their fishing fleet by two vessels and eliminate 50 positions as a direct result of the reduction. Omega is one of the largest employers in the area and had advocated a 10 percent cut in the menhaden harvest.
The debate over the menhaden quota most publicly pitted Omega and several states with a vested interest in commercial fisheries against recreational fishermen and environmentalists. Both sides cited anecdotal information about the health or lack thereof of the stock. The science was not entirely clear given some concerns about data collection and long-range accuracy of the most recent stock assessments, and many fisheries managers generally agree with Omega that the data is not currently available to show the menhaden fishery is overfished at present. That doesn’t mean, however, that overfishing isn’t occurring. As Mike Waine, fishery management plan coordinator with ASMFC, explained it in a March article:
The term ‘overfished’ means there aren’t enough left to sustain themselves. Currently, it’s unknown whether there are enough menhaden out there or not, whether it’s overfished or not. But are they ‘overfishing?’ Yes…Overfishing is like taking money out of your bank account faster than it’s coming in. The rate of removing fish is too high so the action taken in December was in reaction to overfishing.
The reduction in total allowable catch for 2013 means that roughly 170,800 t of menhaden will be landed this year. The goal of the reduction in total allowable catch is to reduce fishing mortality and increase spawning stock biomass.
So how does the addition of two state-of-the-art menhaden fishing vessels to the Omega fleet reconcile with the December 2012 20 percent reduction in catch and continuing concerns about overfishing of menhaden?
“These two vessels allow us to harvest menhaden in a more efficient and environmentally conscious capacity” says Omega CEO Bret Scholtes. “It also allows us to better preserve those fish and conduct our operations in a safer way. It’s really a win-win scenario in all regards. We couldn’t be more excited about the 2013 fishing season and beyond.”
The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) Atlantic Menhaden Management Board will meet on 22 May in Virginia at the ASMFC Spring Meeting.