Commercial Menhaden Operation Buys Respectability

Powerful industrial menhaden-fishing operation pays to be labeled environmentally sustainable

Menhaden on Deck
Menhaden are still in jeopardy in management battle.Dave Morel / Sport Fishing

I’ve just received certification as One of the United States’ Truly Outstanding Editors. Sure am proud of that!

This certification came about after I contracted with an independent (can you see my air quotes?) certification body, for a cut of my annual salary going forward, to do a study assessing my suitability for certification. As part of that process, this body had to request public input. Unfortunately, that was largely negative, with many respected organizations and individuals offering solid reasons to hold off on my certification, it being well-known that I’ve actually diminished editorial standards over the years.

Fortunately, the independent (air quotes again) body, ignored all that and called me conditionally certified, provided I don’t screw up too badly, editorially, for a few years.

So, I guess I’m not really certified, it being ­provisional and all, but I’m letting people know I’ve been approved to be one of those Outstanding Editors.

I figure, hey, if Omega Protein can get away with it, why can’t I?

Omega Protein, in short, is the only reduction fishery — using spotter planes and purse-seining 200,000 tons (2017 data) of menhaden along the mid-Atlantic and, more recently, also the Northeast — remaining on our Atlantic coast. Other such reduction fisheries have been banned.

But other such fisheries — that reduce forage fish to meal to feed farmed fish in pens and our pets — lacked the power and influence that Omega (which recently became Canadian owned) has amassed over the years.

Its most recent efforts to wrap itself in a cloak of respectability by claiming it’s a certified sustainable fishery came after it paid a company called SAI Global for a study assessing its qualification for certification by the Marine Stewardship Council. In March, these independent ­auditors officially recommended that the MSC label Omega’s operation as sustainable. (I don’t know exactly how much this independent body was paid, but their analysis for Omega, at more than 500 pages, sure didn’t come cheap.)

And that MSC label, responded Whit Fosburgh, president of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership, will simply “put a blue ribbon on the last holdout of an antiquated and harmful reduction-fishing industry.” All the more ironic since Omega has consistently worked against any conservation measures to protect menhaden. (Speaking of irony, Fosburgh learned that to formally contest this certification, TRCP must pay about $6,500 for the privilege.)

In The Most Important Fish in the Sea, author H. Bruce Franklin offers substantial evidence to justify that title for his book. In brief, the millions of menhaden (aka bunker, aka pogies) that live along our coast from the Gulf to Maine are ecologically vital. Millions and millions of these filter feeders tirelessly clean our bays and coastal waters, and offer absolutely critical food to fish, seabirds and marine mammals, including whales.

One of the myriad of species relying on menhaden to maintain healthy numbers is striped bass. Many recreational-fishing and conservation organizations feel that increasing concerns over striped bass are directly tied to the industrial menhaden-reduction fishery. Yet — until the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission completes an ecosystem-based management model that would assess menhaden’s role on the ecosystem — it’s impossible to say that Omega’s “certified-sustainable” fishery isn’t doing ­ecological harm.

At one time, I would have been outraged at Omega Protein buying its way to public respectability.

But that was before I became certified as an Outstanding Editor.

Doug Olander is editor-in-chief of Sport Fishing magazine.