You can help protect a species of fish vital to ocean ecosystems

You can help protect a species of fish vital to ocean ecosystems

by Celeste Vandeventer
|November 19, 2021

Atlantic Menhaden. Photo: Jared Zissu/Defenders of Menhadenused with permission.

Omega Protein Corp and Omega Protein, Inc. may not be household names, but many of their products are. These two companies, collectively known as “Omega”, form one of the largest reduction fishing organizations in North America. They catch and process fish known as menhaden, then resell the “reduced fish” for use in pet food, agriculture and aquaculture, and fish oil supplements for humans. By harvesting menhaden massively, Omega is endangering the marine ecosystems of the Atlantic Ocean and the Gulf of Mexico, while violating the Clean Water Act and other federal laws.

Menhaden (commonly known as bunker or pogy) are considered one of the most important fish in the sea. They are a type of forage fish, or filter feeders, mitigating harmful algal blooms as well as being a vital food source for whales, striped bass, rockfish, eagles, osprey and many other animals.

According to Chesapeake Bay Foundation, in 2005, the population of this vital species reached its highest level since the 1940s, and has remained low for the past 20 years. Yet companies like Omega capture and process around 6 billion menhaden a year. Without immediate change, Omega’s actions have the potential to damage the food web and further depress populations of striped bass and other predatory species that depend on the menhaden for food. A study in 2017 found that reduction fishing resulted in an almost 30% decline in the population of Atlantic striped bass, the nation’s most popular marine fish species.

Stricter fishing regulations and oversight, especially in the Chesapeake Bay, are essential. In the meantime, consumers can help save menhaden by avoiding Omega products and opting for menhaden alternatives, thereby decreasing market demand.

Menhaden populations in the Chesapeake Bay over time

Menhaden populations in the Chesapeake Bay. Source: Chesapeake Bay Foundation

Omega’s Environmental Violations

Throughout Omega’s corporate history, there have been numerous tales of regulatory violations, ranging from exceeding the fishing limit and violating the Clean Water Act to falsifying information. to qualify for federal loans.

Omega received government funding on the condition that they comply with federal environmental regulations. However, in 2013, the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) sued Omega for two wastewater violations in Virginia. The first offense occurred between May 2008 and September 2010, when the company illegally dumped fish waste, or bail water, from its treatment facility in coastal Virginia waters. To make matters worse, the water in the bail contained additional pollutants and chemicals. Between April 2009 and September 2010, Omega again violated the Clean Water Act; its fishing fleet was caught discharging sewage directly into the sea. The sewage was oily and contaminated with ship’s waste. Omega pleaded guilty to these violations, resulting in a three-year probation period, a $5.5 million fine and a $2 million payment to the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation specifically allocated for restoration projects in the bay. of Chesapeake.

Despite being able to implement ethical and responsible sourcing practices, Omega has done the opposite. In 2017, it became apparent that Omega had not only violated the terms of the previous plea deal, but had also dumped pollutants into the Gulf at its Louisiana site. Again, Omega pleaded guilty to discharging sewage in 2014 and 2016. The resulting plea deal consisted of another three-year probation, a $1 million fine, and $200,000. community service dollars. Discouragingly, the second penalty was less aggressive, with the fine dropping from $5.5 million to $1 million.

In addition to various violations of the Clean Water Act, Omega falsified information in annual and quarterly reports, violating the anti-fraud provision of the US Securities Act and the reporting provision of the Exchange Act and Rules.

To seek and obtain approval for federal loans, Omega signed a contract stating that the company was in compliance with federal environmental regulations, that it had received no notices of prior violations, that there were no had no ongoing investigation or prosecution against it and that it will notify the National Marine Fisheries Service of any event that may affect the terms of the agreement. As of December 2014, Omega was entitled to $21.1 million in government borrowings from five different loans. A number of reports they filed in order to receive these loans were falsified. They were also required to develop and maintain an environmental checklist, but they did not implement it either.

In addition to these legal compliance violations, Omega was recently charged under the Endangered Species Act when its boats were caught passing through the Central Atlantic Right Whale Seasonal Management Areas. ‘Atlantic. Whales pass through these areas as they migrate and use them as calving grounds. Right whale populations are rapidly declining; with only 100 females remaining, Omega Protein further endangers the species by recklessly speeding into their protected habitat.

Besides all of Omega’s harmful actions against the environment, there have been a handful of employee health and safety violations. Unfortunately, many of these violations have resulted in the death of employees, ranging from a worker being caught in a “spinning screw conveyor” to the explosion of a storage tank containing methane and hydrogen sulfide. Omega Protein is also responsible for multiple injuries resulting from operational incidents on their boats. These events include collisions with vessels and a dock supervisor being “vacuumed” by an industrial vacuum that is used to remove fish from the vessel. In addition to these tragic events, in 2012 the United States Department of Labor cited 25 health and safety violations. Omega settled most of these incidents out of court, but in 2014 a case went to court; the judge ruled in favor of Omega in the death of a 24-year-old man who was caught in the spinning conveyor.

In the end, the above facts speak for themselves. Omega’s corruption and lack of concern for the environment and its employees is shocking. It is essential to boycott all products that can be traced to omega protein throughout the value chain. I hope you too will join the fight to save menhaden and protect the Atlantic and the Gulf by consuming alternative and responsible products.

Alternatives to Menhaden

In an effort to protect and restore menhaden populations, many organizations are advocating for ecosystem-based management and improved fishing regulations, but these can take a long time to be approved and then implemented. While it’s essential to support stricter regulations and improved management, we can all make an immediate change by reading the labels and switching to sustainable alternatives.

Unfortunately, the demand for farmed fish is increasing, leading to increased harvesting and processing of menhaden to make fish pellets (or food for these farmed fish). Salmon and shrimp farmers are highly dependent on menhaden pellets. Consumers who want to protect menhaden, marine ecosystems and the ocean food web should boycott farmed salmon and shrimp, opting for a more sustainable wild alternative.

When grocery shopping, consumers can also look for grass-fed meat and poultry to be sure these animals have not been fed menhaden-derived pellets.

When discussing human supplements, it is important to note that there are scientific evidence indicating that it is not necessary to take fish oil supplements if you have a healthy and balanced diet. Either way, some people appreciate the benefits of taking fish oil to get omega-3s, DHA, and EPA in their diet. Luckily for menhaden, you can get the same nutrients from seaweed supplements. Microalgae are a vegan and sustainable alternative that is growing in popularity.

Unfortunately, there is a lack of affordable, fish-free pet foods currently available, but there are a few viable options on the market that contain the same nutrients but come from soy and peas. It is fitting to demand that Purina and other staple pet food companies be more responsible and ethical in sourcing their products. If we as consumers don’t hold these big corporations accountable, they will continue to deplete our natural resources in order to make a profit.

As the climate crisis continues to deepen, the ocean will continue to experience unprecedented stress, making it more imperative than ever to reduce our negative impacts on these fragile and diverse ecosystems.

Celeste Vandeventer is a student in Columbia University’s Masters in Sustainable Management program. She recently focused on menhaden conservation through her internship at Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership. During the internship, she worked directly with various menhaden activism groups and is still actively working to save this vital fish species. She has expanded her research into the global struggle to conserve forage fish and the livelihoods of many marginalized communities who are directly affected.

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