The man, music and menhaden of the chesapeake
Menhaden are the most important fish in the sea
— H. Bruce Franklin

“WHAT’S the deal with fish oil?”

If you are someone who catches and eats a lot of fish, as I am, you get adept at answering questions about which fish are safe, which are sustainable and which should be avoided altogether. But when this fish oil question arrived in my inbox recently, I was stumped. I knew that concerns about overfishing had prompted many consumers to choose supplements as a guilt-free way of getting their omega-3 fatty acids, which studies show lower triglycerides and the risk of heart attack. But I had never looked into the fish behind the oil and whether it was fit, morally or environmentally speaking, to be consumed.

The deal with fish oil, I found out, is that a considerable portion of it comes from a creature upon which the entire Atlantic coastal ecosystem relies, a big-headed, smelly, foot-long member of the herring family called menhaden, which a recent book identifies in its title as “The Most Important Fish in the Sea.”

For the last decade, one company, Omega Protein of Houston, has been catching 90 percent of the nation’s menhaden. The perniciousness of menhaden removals has been widely enough recognized that 13 of the 15 Atlantic states have banned Omega Protein’s boats from their waters. But the company’s toehold in North Carolina and Virginia (where it has its largest processing plant), and its continued right to fish in federal waters, means a half-billion menhaden are still taken from the ecosystem every year.

For fish guys like me, this egregious privatization of what is essentially a public resource is shocking. But even if you are not interested in fish, there is an important reason for concern about menhaden’s decline.




Quite simply, menhaden keep the water clean. The muddy brown color of the Long Island Sound and the growing dead zones in the Chesapeake Bay are the direct result of inadequate water filtration — a job that was once carried out by menhaden. An adult menhaden can rid four to six gallons of water of algae in a minute. Imagine then the water-cleaning capacity of the half-billion menhaden we “reduce” into oil every year.

But I’ve come to realize that, as with many issues surrounding fish, more powerful fulcrums than consumer choice need to be put in motion to fix things. President Obama and the Congressional leadership have repeatedly stressed their commitment to wresting the wealth of the nation from the hands of a few. A demonstration of this commitment would be to ban the fishing of menhaden in federal waters. The Virginia Legislature could enact a similar moratorium in the Chesapeake Bay (the largest menhaden nursery in the world).

The menhaden is a small fish that in its multitudes plays such a big role in our economy and environment that its fate shouldn’t be effectively controlled by a single company and its bottles of fish oil supplements. If our government is serious about standing up for the little guy, it should start by giving a little, but crucial, fish a fair deal.

NY Times Op Ed - Paul Greenberg


Mission Blue: Sylvia Earl

Chesapeake Bay is fished by industrial fishing boats that hoover up billions of menhaden into their holds and transport them to a local facility where they are ground up for applications such as fertilizer, dog food and omega-3 fish oil supplements. This is known as the menhaden reduction industry, and it accounts for 80% of the menhaden catch in the Atlantic. The health benefits claimed by fish oil companies are not supported by research.

Omega Protein (NYSE: OME), a company based out of Houston, dominates the menhaden reduction industry, taking the majority of the Atlantic Menhaden catch and operating the only processing facility on the East Coast, which is located in Reedville, Virginia.

If you’re thinking there may be some environmental collateral damage from the industrial fishing of menhaden, you are right. But first let’s learn more about this particular fish. Menhaden, a bony and oily fish, measure up to 15 inches long and are part of the herring family. These fish play a critical ecological role as forage feeders that eat plankton and generate protein and fat that nourish animals higher up in the food web, like sea birds, dolphins, whales and striped bass.

Groups like the Chesapeake Bay Defense Foundation, whose specific goal is to end purse seine fishing inside Virginia state waters, argue that industrial menhaden fishing by Omega Protein is degrading the Chesapeake Bay in several ways. Firstly, the extraction of a species critical to the food web reduces population levels of other important fish like striped bass. (Local fishermen report much weaker catches after the massive menhaden purse seiners operated by Omega Protein move through.) Secondly, since Chesapeake Bay is a giant nursery for juvenile menhaden, their intense extraction in the region could collapse local menhaden populations. Third, these floating fishing factories discharge “bail” water directly into the Chesapeake Bay, violating the Clean Water Act and doing untold damage to the local ecosystem. According to the United States Department of Justice:

Toxic and illegal “bail” water

From May 2008 through September 2010, Omega Protein violated the Clean Water Act through the operation of its fish processing facility in Reedsville, VA and through the operation of its fishing fleet, also based in Reedsville. Specifically, Omega’s processing facility generated a fish waste known as “bail” water, the court records indicate. This bail water consisted of water mixed with fish waste and was permitted to be discharged at a point beyond three nautical miles from the shore, provided it was not mixed with any other chemicals or wastes.  According to the statement of facts filed with the Court, Omega combined the bail water with pollutants generated by the processing operations and a caustic substance.  This material was then discharged into the Chesapeake Bay at a point less than three nautical miles from the shore.

The company settled for millions of dollars, yet there isn’t conclusive evidence available that shows they have cleaned up their act.

Dr. Sylvia Earle documenting menhaden fishing in Chesapeake Bay in 2012

“Because depletion of the juvenile population in the inshore nursery areas has dire consequences for the ecology of the bays, every Atlantic state, from Florida to Maine, except Virginia, bans purse seining for menhaden in its inshore and near-shore waters,” says William Tabor of the Chesapeake Bay Defense Foundation. “The result is that Omega Protein, the sole industrial menhaden reduction fishing operation, catches nearly its entire Atlantic quota in Virginia waters, with fully half its quota taken inside the Chesapeake Bay.”

The graphs below from Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission data show two trends. First, that the population levels of Atlantic menhaden have declined drastically since the middle of the 1980’s. Second, the reduction industry accounts for almost all of this decrease: roughly 80% of the menhaden catch is used for fish oil, fertilizers, animal feed and other commercial products, while 20% is used for bait by commercial fishermen.

Source: Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission

“The juvenile menhaden that come into the Bay are the important ones,” says Steven Epstein of the Chesapeake Bay Defense Foundation. “The older fish don’t filter feed like the little ones do. So why can’t the fishing take place outside state lines—three miles out like in other states—where they won’t pollute the coast and hurt the Bay? That would put an end to all the problems, I think.”

Agreed. So why isn’t Virginia better protecting the Chesapeake Bay and the menhaden nursery within it? Here’s the rub: every fishery in Virginia is managed by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission—every fishery, that is, except the menhaden fishery. That important fishery is managed directly by Virginia’s General Assembly, which is the state legislature. How strange. While some members of the legislature are trying to address the issue, others are not.

According to an editorial in the Virginian-Pilot:

In June, Gov. Terry McAuliffe praised Omega for its contributions to Virginia’s economy—more than $88 million a year.

That’s significant. And if the industry were being regulated as all other saltwater fisheries are—by scientists—the praise wouldn’t be suspect. But McAuliffe, like many other public officials in Virginia, has benefited from Omega, receiving $25,000 in 2014 for the governor-elect’s inaugural committee, according to vpap.org. In all, the company has contributed $385,749 to the campaigns of Virginia candidates.

That matters because Virginia’s menhaden fishery is controlled by the General Assembly rather than by regulators, as all other saltwater fish are. Virginia is the only state on the Atlantic coast where lawmakers manage the menhaden fishery.

As grassroots environmentalists have brought more pressure to the issue, a Facebook page was created on December 7th called the Menhaden Fisheries Coalition that disputes many of the claims made in this article. Go ahead and read the posts on this Facebook page and also see the local backlash in the comments. Also, notice that the address of this Facebook page is listed on K Street in Washington DC, the epicenter of lobbyist power in the United States. It would seem that Omega Protein and the menhaden reduction industry isn’t going to leave Chesapeake Bay without a fight.

You can write Virginia lawmakers as well as the EPA and your members of Congress telling them to better regulate the menhaden reduction industry. The Chesapeake Bay Defense Foundation has even provided a template letter you can use, available here. Also, you can avoid products with fish oils such as fish oil supplements, many kinds of pet foods and fertilizers.