Over the weekend I had a chance to read another great article on the state and politics of bunker fishing. As I’ve written before on several occasions, the bunker resource is an exceptionally fragile one due to commercial overfishing that’s been allowed to run rampant for 50 years with little resistance, until recently, by the bodies charged with maintaining and regulating the fishery. A Fish Story is the article by Alison Fairbrother, the director of the Public Trust Project, and it’s a long and rewarding read on the bunker fishery, and a in-depth look at the lobbying arm and financial interests that the reduction industry—in particular, Omega Protein, the Texas-based corporation responsible for 80 percent of the the total bunker catch—exerts on the political process of managing these fish.
What was especially eye-opening for me is Fairbrother’s description of the economic side of commercial menhaden industry—the surprisingly small number of jobs it provides versus those related to recreational fishing, and the economic benefit of actually leaving these fish in the water versus harvesting them.
* “This vast protein extraction machine supports surprisingly few American jobs. A 2010 study by the economist James Kirkley at the Virginia Institute of Marine Resources found that the reduction industry has an $88 million economic impact on the Chesapeake Bay region, supplying 300 jobs at Omega Protein during the peak fishing season and 219 jobs in ancillary industries supported by the fishery. Recreational fishing, by comparison, has a $332 million economic impact in Virginia and Maryland, supporting 3,500 jobs, from bait and tackle shops to manufacturers of fishing equipment to charter-boat owners and captains—all of whom have an indirect stake in the health of the menhaden population.”
* “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.”
Fairbrother also touches on the kind of ruthless, monomaniacal thinking with which industry lobbyists seem to regard the resources of the ocean, in this particular example concerning fish higher up the food chain.
* “In 2007, there were 56 million stripers swimming around the Atlantic and its estuaries, gobbling up crabs, herring, and, of course, menhaden. Ecologists and anglers see this as a great success story and an argument for a more ecologically minded strategy of resource management. The reduction industry and its allies see things differently. One of Omega Protein’s closed-door arguments to the ASMFC was that anglers should be allowed to fish down the striped bass population, as that would remove a major competitor for menhaden, leaving more fish in the water for Omega Protein to catch.”
After years and years of official ineptitude, faulty science, powerful political lobbying and dubious conflicts of interest, things seem to be changing in the right direction for the bunker. Back in November the ASMFC voted to set the new reference point of the fish to 30 percent of maximum spawning potential, up from the previous, industry-friendly 8 percent. (The reference point refers to the percentage of the total population to which the species can be fished down and still remain a “healthy” fishery. This is a number set by the ASFMC, determined by the ratio of estimated spawning potential—number of eggs—of the current population versus an imagined population with zero human predators.) This is due to the hard work of a few scientists, groups like the Pew Charitable Trusts, activist anglers like Paul Eidman of the Menhaden Defenders, and everyday fisher-folk like us for whom bunker remains the most important fish in the sea. Virginia and New Jersey, the two states that voted against the new reference point, are actively trying to find ways to circumvent the new mandate, even considering secession from the ASFMC. It’s sad to see the power of industry that benefits so few while causing incalculable damage to an ecosystem that affects so many. It flies in the face of any kind of logic, both from a financial and environmental perspective. But there it is, and Omega Protein and their Virginia lobbyists are still fighting to circumvent regulation and maintain what they regard as their right to empty the ocean. It’s maybe fitting that Alison Fairbrother included this fact from the fallout after the November vote:
“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.”