REEDVILLE, Va. – October 31, 2019 – As expected, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (Commission) moved forward today with a non-compliance referral for the Commonwealth of Virginia as a result of its menhaden reduction fishery surpassing a cap on harvest in the Chesapeake Bay. To be clear, this does not mean Virginia has been found out of compliance. Now concerns of stakeholders and Virginia officials over the Bay cap will be heard by the U.S. Secretary of Commerce, with advice and counsel from NOAA and NOAA Fisheries, who will make a final ruling on non-compliance. Whatever that ruling is, Omega Protein will adhere to it.
It was Omega Protein’s sincere hope that the Bay cap issue could be resolved with good faith efforts by all parties through the Commission process. To this end, the Company has made a concerted effort to fish outside Bay waters whenever possible over the last decade, in keeping with the goal of the Commission and Bay stakeholders of lowering harvest within the Bay. That goal has largely been achieved. Between 2000 and 2009, average Bay landings were 92,500 metric tons (mt). Between 2010 and 2019, Bay landings were down 45 percent to 51,000 mt. Even if the Bay cap is vacated by the Secretary, Omega Protein will continue to prioritize responsible harvest in the Bay.
During the 2019 fishing season, when poor ocean conditions and an abundance of menhaden just inside the Bay led to higher Bay harvests, the Company voluntarily capped its Bay harvest at 67,000 mt – well below the more than 87,000 mt limit legally allowed by the Commonwealth of Virginia. Even with the higher Bay catch this season, the 2-year, 3-year, and 5-year average harvest in the Bay remains below the 51,000 mt cap, which was implemented in 2017.
This 51,000 mt cap, which was based on average harvests over a 5-year period, does not provide the fishery the flexibility it needs to operate year-to-year. No two fishing seasons are the same, as conditions and the location of fish vary. The Commission previously worked with stakeholders to create an episodic event set-aside to help states deal with increased local availability. Such abundance led some states to exceed their quotas, often by significant margins, without being found out of compliance. The hard cap on Bay harvests does not provide similar flexibility for such episodic abundance.
The Bay cap has never been scientifically justified as necessary for menhaden conservation. After the first cap of more than 109,000 mt was created in 2006, the Commission’s then-executive director Vince O’Shea stated plainly to Congress, “There was not a science basis for the cap.” Instead, as the Commission wrote in January 2018, it was created as a “precautionary measure set as a placeholder until the commissioned studies on localized depletion were finalized and peer-reviewed.” To this day, there remains no study indicating localized depletion of menhaden is occurring in the Bay. Nevertheless, Chesapeake Bay states and stakeholders agreed to multiple caps as political compromises until the drastic reduction in 2017.
Non-compliance referrals from the Commission are a normal step in the process provided to stakeholders to resolve disputed issues. In the past 30 years, there have been over 20 such referrals to the Commerce Department. However, this referral is extraordinary because, as has been noted by NOAA legal counsel, it is the first time ever that the Commission has recommended non-compliance for a healthy fishery.
Omega Protein is proud of the work we have done, alongside scientists and regulators, to ensure the Atlantic menhaden fishery is healthy and sustainable. According to the Commission’s 2017 stock assessment, menhaden is not overfished and is not experiencing overfishing. More recently, the fishery was certified as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council – the most rigorous fisheries sustainability assessment body in the world – in September.
Despite today’s action, Omega Protein stands ready to work cooperatively with the Commission on improved, science-based fisheries management of menhaden. Omega Protein has long held that fisheries regulations should only be adopted if they adhere to the best available science, and we look forward to participating in the development of ecological reference points for menhaden.
About Omega Protein
Omega Protein Corporation is a century old nutritional product company that develops, produces and delivers healthy products throughout the world to improve the nutritional integrity of foods, dietary supplements and animal feeds. Omega Protein’s mission is to help people lead healthier lives with better nutrition through sustainably sourced ingredients such as highly-refined specialty oils, specialty proteins products and nutraceuticals. Omega Protein is a division of Cooke Inc., a family owned fishery company based in New Brunswick, Canada.
The Company operates seven manufacturing facilities located in the United States, Canada and Europe. The Company also has a long-term supply contract with Ocean Harvesters, which owns 30 vessels which harvest menhaden, a fish abundantly found off the coasts of the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico. The Company’s website is www.omegaprotein.com.
All fishing vessels formerly owned by Omega Protein are owned and operated by Ocean Harvesters, an independent company.