by Craig Weatherby
It's great that Americans are finally getting into the fish oil habit. What's not so great is how that demand is being met.
Rapacious factory-fishing methods are being used to harvest small fish called Atlantic menhaden from Chesapeake Bay, in numbers so large that some say the practice threatens the marine ecosystem. Currently, there are no restrictions on Menhaden harvesting.
Menhaden are small (2.5 inch) filter-feeding fish that help clear the bay of the choking plankton blooms created by fertilizer run-off and waste from the large pig and chicken farms that use livestock food made with ground-up menhaden.
Menhaden provide much of the food on which aquacultured fish—especially farmed salmon—are raised.
Menhaden also constitute a vital food source for larger fish such as rockfish and bluefish: a loss that also impacts the fishermen who depend on these predator species.
According to a report conducted for MenhadenMatter.org—a coalition of environmental and conservation organizations—more than 100,000 tons of the fish are pulled from the Chesapeake each year, pushing their numbers to an all-time low and threatening the future of the species.
Menhaden feed by straining plankton from the water, and this ecological function is especially important in the major estuaries of the Atlantic Coast, including the Chesapeake Bay and North Carolina's Pamlico Sound, where water quality is compromised because of excess nutrients, mainly from agricultural and storm drain runoff and sewage disposal.
Many valuable and highly prized fish and animal species—striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, marine mammals, sea turtles, ospreys and loons—depend on menhaden as a food source. Because each species occupies a crucial niche in the ecosystem, excessive removal of prey species, like menhaden, may disrupt its natural balance and sustainability.
The report also found that decreasing menhaden levels affect larger fish, notably bass, which are suffering from malnutrition and stress.
Greenpeace protests menhaden plunder
Last Wednesday, the environmental advocacy group Greenpeace sent protesters in boats to hinder Omega Protein's menhaden harvest.
About 50 people in boats with giant floating fish skeletons and signs reading "Floating factory fishing is overkill" sailed to the Reedville, Virginia menhaden processing plant of Omega Protein, Inc. The company, which is owned by a Texas billionaire, is America's largest producer of fish oil for dietary supplements.
By hindering the harvest for a day, Greenpeace hopes to shine light on a regulatory vacuum created by undue corporate influence. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, an inter-governmental regulatory agency, is set to vote this Wednesday on whether to limit the number of menhaden that commercial fishermen can catch each year.
The Commission has been under pressure by local politicians—some of whom have received substantial campaign funds from Omega Protein—to remove a member critical of the rapacious menhaden harvest.
The Board of Supervisors of Virginia's Northumberland County—home port of Omega's fleet—voted in July, 2005 to ask the ASMFC to remove one of Maryland's three representatives because he'd suggested that restraint might be necessary to save a fish vital to the bay's rich ecology.
We hope the Commission lets science—not economic influence exerted by a Texas billionaire—decide the matter.