Grinding up our fishing future for China

Omega Protein Inc. located in Reedville, Virginia,USA is very busy these days, quietly exporting tons of our most vital forage fish to China and other countries. Atlantic Menhaden are the backbone of America’s east coast marine ecosystem and coastal recreational fishing business.  Omega is the only company left that still grinds up these fish, also known as bunker, down to fishmeal and oil in a procedure called “reduction”.  From Omega’s Reedville location alone they catch, process and reduce over 160,000 metric tons annually of our east coast native menhaden.

As the world’s population increases, so does the demand for fish. People don’t eat menhaden directly, but many of the fish that we commonly eat are farmed fish that are fed menhaden as fishmeal and oil. Omega Protein is strategically positioned to profit from this exploding aquaculture market.(fish farming)

Americans are eating a lot of fish, but now that over 80% of the fish consumed by Americans now comes from overseas fish farms.  Top sellers like farm raised shrimp, salmon, tilapia and Swai or Basa (Pangasious catfish) are fed mass quantities of the menhaden based, protein packed pellets that accelerate growth and get them to market faster.

As if depleting our marine food chain wasn’t enough, the majority of these fish are raised in deplorable, unregulated, contaminated, sewer-like conditions and are then processed with cheap labor, flash frozen and shipped back to American supermarkets and big box stores like Wal Mart and many others. The FDA openly admits that with so much coming over the borders, proper quality control is impossible.

Menhaden are free for the taking and Omega’s captains and crew have become very efficient at catching them. Directed to the acre sized schools by spotter planes, smaller boats swiftly encircle them with a purse seine net, and position the load next to the ship, dropping a large vacuum pump into the penned fish and quickly suck them out. Up a massive hose and into the refrigerated seawater storage hold they go.

They specifically focus on the older, larger fish that bring in the most money.

Unfortunately, these are the same fish that produce the most eggs and determine the future of the menhaden and to our fishing.

Menhaden have historically ranged from Maine to Florida, but now with stocks at the lowest point in history, the upper and lower portions of the biomass are gone and now predominantly left in the Mid to upper Atlantic region, roughly from Cape Cod to the Carolinas. You don’t have to be a marine biologist to see that something is very wrong here, the writing is on the wall and it reads “Warning- biomass collapse level reached-reduce catch now or pay the price later”

Insisting that they are operating a “sustainable operation”, publicly held Omega protein has clearly taken a blind eye to this and continues to vacuum up the very fish that provide essential nutrition for Striped Bass, Bluefin Tuna, Weakfish and many other fish and marine mammal species that occupy the top strata of the marine food chain. Company spokesmen continue to boast that spotter plane pilots are seeing more bunker than ever before, while tuna fishermen in New England and fishermen in Florida havent seen abundant adult schools in years.  ASMFC scientific study teams have released data that concluded that Atlantic menhaden overfishing has been occurring for 52 of the past 54 years, regardless of this, Omega Protein continues to selfishly profit from this wild resource while our fishing related businesses along the coast go bust.

A 2010 study by the economic James Kirkley at the Virginia Institute of Marine Resources found that the reduction industry has an $88 million economic impact on the Chesapeake Bay region, supplying 300 jobs at Omega Protein, and 219 jobs in industries supported by the reduction fishery. But those figures pale in comparison to recreational fishing activities, which have a $332 million economic impact in Virginia and Maryland, and supports 3,500 jobs in those two states alone.

Sadly, Menhaden are one of the few fish left that remain unregulated, yes, there is no limit on the amount of these fish that can be caught. But, this is about to change and you can do something about this insanity and help to change the way Omega does business.The Atlantic States Marine Fishery Commission (ASMFC) will vote to put catch limits on this fishery on December 14th. The outcome of this vote will tell all of us if the ASMFC truly cares about our sport, our jobs, and our environment. Visit the website MenhadenDefenders.org and just click on the menhaden.

 

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