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Menhaden muddle, part 2.

[This is the second part of a five-part series on the issue of menhaden depletion by Charles Hutchinson. For more background information, check out The Most Important Fish in the Sea. --Ed.] Menhaden were initially used as fertilizer for the Colonists crops As the nation grew an industry developed to fish for the menhaden in both the Atlantic and the Gulf of Mexico. Since our concern here is for Atlantic menhaden our analysis and opinion is limited to that species. Gulf menhaden are a different variety entirely .Over time the menhaden were processed and utilized as ingredients in commercial products as well as fertilizer and feed stock for other animals. Today menhaden are largely utilized as animal feed stock, aquaculture and probably best known for Omega3 fish oil used as a human food supplement. The early menhaden reduction factories were small facilities numbering in excess of 100 spread out along the East Coast from Maine to the Carolinas. They were simplistic operations, labor intensive, utilizing relatively small vessels to catch the fish. Today there is only one factory remaining, that belonging to Omega Protein located in Reedville, Virginia. What happened to all these factories? For the most part they failed economically. Additionally, some were shut down as the waterfront property became more valuable as residential property, particularly as profits declined. The catch declined also. In their heyday more than 500,000 metric tons were harvested annually while currently only about 160,000 metric tons are being harvested and plant capacity is not the limiting factor. The methods used to catch the fish are much more efficient as are the processing facilities leading to survival of only the most technologically proficient. Today, the only remnent of the small operations are the bait fisheries scattered along the coast. .Menhaden are used as bait for lobsters and crabs as well as finfish in the charter boat business. Still, the harvest of menhaden is the largest in the entire US. Reedville’s harvest is reported to be the largest of any species on the East Coast. Some say it is as big as all other fisheries combined. Obviously we are not dealing here with a peanut size business. And Omega is roughly 85% of the US industry. With 4 plants, 3 on the Gulf and the one in Reedville, Omega is the 800 lb. gorilla of the industry. They are a sophisticated operation with an amazing amount of political clout both in Virginia and Washington. In Virginia, as in no other state, regulation of menhaden is controlled by the legislature as opposed to a department of natural resources or similar agency. Makes it much easier to exert their influence. Omega Protein has made a name for themselves as the largest supplier of Omega3 oil .These oils are reportedly very useful as a food supplement with medicinal benefits. These are apparently well founded claims. Most oily fish have these attributes but menhaden are preferred source because a higher percentage of the fish’s weight is in oil. Reedville is the only plant which processes the oils to extract Omega3 because the Atlantic menhaden are larger and contain more oil. Availability of Omega 3 oil is not limited to menhaden, or to fish for that matter. The oil can be made from flax, or it can be obtained by the fermentation of algae. The point here is that continuation of the menhaden harvest is not essential to the production and marketing of Omega3 oils. Omega Protein has done much to influence the ASMFC. One technique is to push the concept that menhaden decisions be made on “the best available science”. Fishery science is imprecise at best but by insisting that ASMFC abide by its code that decisions will be based on the “best available science”,. that ploy has worked well for them in terms of regulatory action. Watch what happens if the same science declares that the stock is in trouble or other sciences are given equal status in the regulatory process.