Features

May/June 2012 A Fish Story

How an angler and two government bureaucrats may have saved the Atlantic Ocean.

By Alison Fairbrother

The meeting to vote on the proposal took place in Boston on an unseasonably warm day in November 2011. Anglers came from far and wide—Maine, Rhode Island, Virginia, North Carolina—wearing olive and gray caps with embroidered striped bass and buttons that said “Save the Bunker” and “Save Menhaden Now.” Many drove in on so-called Bunker Buses, arranged jointly by sport-fishing clubs and environmental organizations. Paul Eidman, an angler from New Jersey who founded the group Menhaden Defenders, towed a billboard in his truck that depicted a striped bass made up of tiny, swimming menhaden. “No Bunker, no Bass,” the sign read, drawing cheers as it was installed outside the ASMFC meeting room. Whale watchers came from Maine, charter-boat owners from Maryland, commercial bait fishermen from New Jersey and Virginia, and environmentalists from the Chesapeake Bay region. Omega Protein’s senior scientist, public relations director, and plant manager sat together in the middle of the audience, looking glum.

As soon as the meeting began, it became clear that for the commissioners, the 40 percent figure was too radical a change. The opening bid was for a 30 percent limit. The question was how much lower it would go, and there were political currents below the surface pulling for the lowest possible number. In advance of the meeting, Virginia Governor McDonnell had approached five Republican governors along the coast, urging them to join him in choosing an option that would be less damaging to the reduction fishery. The night before the meeting, New Jersey Governor Chris Christie had called his commissioners and instructed them to vote with Virginia. New Jersey is home to Lund’s Fisheries, the largest menhaden bait company on the Eastern Seaboard, employing eighty-five fishermen.

In the end, it didn’t matter. New Jersey and Virginia were the only states to vote against setting the new reference point at 30 percent of MSP. After the vote, a grateful audience burst into applause. At least one conservation-oriented commissioner began to cry. For many, the vote was twenty years in the making.

Jim Price was not at the meeting that day. He was out in his boat on the Choptank River with Jim Uphoff and another scientist. But Price had his iPad with him and followed the vote in real time via Twitter. He smiled quietly when he read the news. “It changed the mood on the boat that day,” he told me.

That night, Omega Protein’s stock plummeted from nearly $11 per share to $8.54, and ultimately lost 35 percent of its value in a nine-day period. Six months later, the stock has barely recovered.

While the new reference points are a major breakthrough, the effort to protect the menhaden is by no means a done deal. Omega Protein may pursue any of three different strategies to protect its market share and foil conservationists’ hopes.

The first option is to delay rollout of the new rule. This past winter the ASMFC, ever the cautious body, put out a document asking for public comment on the appropriate timeline for implementing its new 30 percent preservation rule. Options include one, three, five, or ten years. (The ten-year time frame was not originally on the table, but Jack Travelstead, an ASMFC commissioner from Virginia, lobbied to have it included.) Ten years would buy Omega lobbyists the time they need to work the Menhaden Technical Committee and secure higher catch limits. In a call to investors and stock analysts in March, Omega CEO Brett Scholtes said the company viewed the ten-year timeline as “directionally favorable.”

Omega’s second option is simply to send its ships farther out into the ocean. The ASMFC only regulates state waters between the shore and three miles out to sea—which is traditionally where most menhaden fishing has taken place. The territory between three and 200 nautical miles is called the Exclusive Economic Zone (EEZ), and is subject to fairly loose federal monitoring under the jurisdiction of NOAA. “What goes on in the EEZ is still the wild west. There’s little oversight and enforcement, so we are relying entirely on the honesty of people at the dock, fish-processing companies, or wholesalers that buy the fish and put it out to market,” says Paul Eidman, founder of Menhaden Defenders.

The company’s third option—a nuclear option, really—is to convince Virginia politicians to secede from the ASMFC. The ASMFC is a voluntary compact between states, and Virginia nearly left it once before, in 1996, objecting to the constitutionality of a congressional mandate that states comply with regulations put in place by the ASMFC. That secession bill passed both the Virginia House and Senate and was even signed into law by then Governor George Allen before ultimately being scrapped when the legislature took it up again the following year.

As reductions to Omega Protein’s harvest loom, Virginia State Senator Richard Stuart has introduced a bill that would withdraw Virginia from the ASMFC entirely, a move that would affect not only menhaden, but every other marine species, fishermen, and maritime industry in the Old Dominion State, the nation’s fourth-largest seafood provider.

“I drafted my bill to demonstrate to the ASMFC that Virginia will not tolerate ignoring the best available data on menhaden,” Stuart told a reporter. His bill was referred to committee, and has been carried over to the 2013 legislative session. If it passes, as some suspect it might, Governor McDonnell will have an opportunity to sign it before he leaves office in early 2014 (presuming, of course, that he does not become part of a successful Romney ticket this year).

Presumably, for Virginia, withdrawing from the ASMFC would be a prelude to disregarding its rules. If Virginia does ignore the ASMFC’s menhaden regulations, the commission would have no choice but to find the state “out of compliance.” Unless Virginia changed its tune, the case would go to the U.S. secretary of commerce, who would have the authority to shut down the menhaden fishery altogether if negotiations failed to resolve the issue. Because of all the mandatory delays and timetables involved, the process could drag on for months or years, only to end in an eleventh-hour compromise. For Omega Protein, it could be the ultimate delay game, allowing the company to fish to its heart’s content while it waits for more favorable science and continues lobbying.

But there is another possible scenario, one even more dire. If Virginia refuses to comply with the secretary of commerce, the matter could end up in federal court. This would not only entail further delays, with the possibility of a lengthy appeals process; at a time when constitutional arguments for states’ rights are gaining traction, this disagreement over the lowly menhaden could be grounds for questioning the constitutionality of the federal government’s power to interfere with the state of Virginia and its ability to manage its own natural resources.

Alison Fairbrother is the director of the nonpartisan Public Trust Project, which investigates and reports on misrepresentations of science by corporations and government, and promotes the findings of independent scientists.

Comments

  • William Bartlett on May 09, 2012 9:53 AM:

    Dear Ms. Fairbrother,
    What great coverage of the menhaden issue.
    I can't see where you missed a thing.
    Thank you for all that you have been doing to bring back the menhaden.

  • Dick on May 09, 2012 12:43 PM:

    It seems like its a case of "Follow the Money" again. Lobbying and political contributions focused on Virginia and NJ outweigh the "science" of the ASMFC and the overwhelming logic of protecting the most important forage fish in the sea. ASMFC needs to grow a pair.

    Has anyone looked into buying out Omega via acquiring a majority of its outstanding stock? Then management policies could be made more eco-friendly by shareholder activism pressure on the board of directors. Certainly PEW could lead the way. Perhaps a coalition of ecology and recreational fishing groups could do it. Follow the money!

    The other aspect of Menhaden not covered in the excellent article is its unique ability to clean up harbors and estuaries by virtue of its filter-feeding. Conservation groups not directly involved with fishing are taking an interest in the plight of this poor fish. Oysters can't do it all alone. Water quality has an economic value.

  • Dave H on May 09, 2012 1:30 PM:

    Typical, argue that this is "only" a model, the "science isn't settled", the observed declines are "anecdotal", etc. Sounds like global warming, acid rain, and every other ecological cause the GOP opposes.

  • Bartley Tumolo on May 09, 2012 1:43 PM:

    The most complete article I have read on this subject, now we all must work for the future of the "lowly bunker", the anchor of the coastal fisheries... big fish eat little fish, and that's science we all understand !!

  • Jen Dalton on May 09, 2012 10:33 PM:

    A magnificent piece of research and writing. I feel I've been given a very well-rounded picture of a serious issue, made even more important because it shows the nature of corporate obscurantism, exposed by an almost cinematic process of gum-shoe scientific activism bringing about positive change. Thanks.

  • David Nyberg on May 10, 2012 6:31 PM:

    Gee, I thought this issue was well on the to being solved at an acceptable level for the fish. It is sad that ASMFC is not up to the task. Thanks to everyone who has brought this to the attention of the public. I believe that many will be keeping a close eye on what is going on.

  • Anna on May 11, 2012 3:11 AM:

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  • Devin on May 11, 2012 4:36 PM:

    Nice article! I saw it linked to from Andrew Sullivan's The Dish.

  • Jerry Jarombek on May 11, 2012 10:13 PM:

    Wonderful article. I tell my bait shop friends that this is their fight. When bunker are present, bass and blue fishing improves; when fishing improves more people go fishing; when more go fishing, bait shops sell more bait and tackle.

  • Anon on May 12, 2012 9:21 PM:

    Wonderful, wonderful article. I'm embarrassed to admit (especially as an environmentalist and sometime freshwater fisherman) my boyfriend and I always assumed the fish emulsion purchased for our garden bed came from scrap. The things you take for granted... my uncle always just buried fish scraps in a corner of his garden like his father before him did. I suppose I'll just start doing the same once I figure out a good raccoon barrier.

    This article with a note about the products Omega produces will be forwarded to quite a few people.

    Thank you, again.

  • Kevin Law on May 14, 2012 3:24 PM:

    "No little fish, no big fish"

  • Tom M. on May 16, 2012 7:59 AM:

    Dave H on May 09, 2012 1:30 PM:

    Typical, argue that this is "only" a model, the "science isn't settled", the observed declines are "anecdotal", etc. Sounds like global warming, acid rain, and every other ecological cause the GOP opposes.

    Gee Dave, what a typical idiotic, liberal thing to say. The only REAL environmentalists are hunters and fishermen as we put our money where our mouth is. Smelly hippies talk a lot while using every new electronic device available and driving electric cars which run on electricity produced by burning coal, therefore producing acid rain. You and Al Gore can bite me.

  • Rick Edmund on May 17, 2012 8:34 PM:

    As the article stated, rockfish eat small crabs too. With less menhaden, more crabs are eaten. Up to 100 crabs might be found in the belly of rockfish. I live on Smith Island, MD where the abundance of crabs affects the Island's income. Another reason to restrict the numbers of menhaden caught. An excellent well researched and written article.

  • Alan on May 19, 2012 9:08 AM:

    I can only hope the environment and menhaden win this battle. Over the last few years, Virginia has been taken over by the radical right and are hell bent on destroying everything that does not meet their business first agenda.

    I do like the idea of controlling the stock of the company.

    Surely a coalition of conversation groups could do this.

  • Marilou McCrosky on May 19, 2012 9:34 AM:

    You have done a lot of research but you missed the fact that the menhaden does not use the Chesapeake Bay as a nursery. They spawn out in the ocean. This is an important piece of this puzzle. Certainly a rise in the population of the menhaden would help restore the bay, but stopping a harvest that an existing population has adapted to could have disastrous consequences. I know that quantities of menhaden have been harvested consistently for over 100 years. Because this timeframe is outside of the lifespan of this species, evolution to adapt to this harvest pressure must be present or the population would have been eliminated.
    In addition, the processing plant is located on Cockrell's Creek, we use the possessive. I grew up in Reedville.

  • Sherilyn Neurles on May 19, 2012 11:32 PM:

    A pertinent and informative article, but what happened to past tense? How about:

    On a balmy afternoon in late summer, Jim Price REACHED into the body cavity of a striped bass and PULLED out a spleen. The sixty-eight-year-old jewelry-store owner PALPATED the organ with long gloved fingers, checking for disease. Finding none, he SET it aside before turning his attention back to the carcass. “There’s something here,” he BARKED, as he SLICED into the stomach with a scalpel and his volunteer assistant Jerry MOVED in for a closer look.

    **************

    I know we tell jokes in present tense ("a horse walks into a bar'), but it drives me nuts in print and broadcast journalism.

  • sandra kaufman on May 23, 2012 10:16 PM:

    great story, I read the book "the most important fish in the sea" and I was "hooked" on this and other ocean/sea/waterways issues. More people need to know. thank you.

  • george thomas on June 02, 2012 10:47 AM:

    As a recreational angler from the Keys to the Gulf of Maine, the decline of the menhaden has been obvious for a decade - and with their disappearance has come the loss of the game fish that fuel the regional economy. Tackle shops in Maine have closed as the striper population has declined corresponding to the decline of mehaden and other bait fish. In Maine lobsters are being free-range fed in feeding stations (baited traps that are readily exited) using herring and other bait fish that are systematically harvested. The decline is everywhere apparent.

  • Aaron on June 02, 2012 11:25 AM:

    Wow, that was a fantastic read. I'll be looking forward to your work in the future.

  • Charlton Price on July 25, 2012 9:09 PM:


    This is magisterially competent research and editorially brilliant reportage. In the tradition of Lincoln Steffens, Upton Sinclair, and Ida Tarbell, masters of muckraking. Alison Fairbrother is helping to revive and sustain the higher standard of investigative journalism we so desperately need.

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