How an angler and two government bureaucrats may have saved the Atlantic Ocean.
And yet, for all the cards Omega might play to avoid regulation, its most historically important weapon—the ASMFC “science” that once supported its claims to menhaden—has now become a huge liability. The company’s business model is also being challenged, as scientists around the globe race to develop vegetarian fish feed to reduce pressure on wild forage fish used in fish meal. More and more, the whole forage fish reduction industry is looking like an anachronism. A report released in April by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, managed by the Pew Charitable Trusts, estimated that the value of leaving forage fish in the ocean as a food source for predators is $11 billion—twice as much as the $5.6 billion those fish generate when reduced into fish meal and fish oil for things like aquaculture, farming, human supplements, and pet food.
Stepping back from the sprawling scope and maddening complexity of the menhaden story, there’s a near-comical aspect to the image of this silvery fish, darting around in a pail of briny water or frozen in a carton of bait, confounding the American system of governance. It’s hard to fathom that something as seemingly simple as regulating the catch of a bunch of oily fish could be so spectacularly elusive, or that this tiny creature could be so crucial to the ecological balance of the oceans and the health and well-being of life on land. At some point, economic logic and political pressure will probably force Omega Protein out of the menhaden fishing business. The question is how much damage this one company will do to the ocean’s ecology in the meantime.
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