RFA Says Bunker Could Take Bite Out of Shark Week

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RFA Says Bunker Could Take Bite Out of Shark Week

ASMFC Considers Menhaden Reduction While Omega Posts Quarterly Gains....

August 1, 2011 -  While many Americans are enjoying Shark Week on the Discovery Channel, fisheries managers and corporate entities along the Atlantic Coast are busy preparing for a week of heavy bunker discussion!

The reduction of menhaden, widely dubbed by Dr. Bruce H. Franklin as "The Most Important Fish in the Sea," is such a concern that the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASFMC) is set to meet on Tuesday, August 2 to consider whether its harvest should be significantly lowered for the first time in years.  This meeting of particular importance to the Omega Protein Corporation which fished about 160,000 metric tons of menhaden in Atlantic coastal waters, which represent 80% of the total catch (the other 20% is allotted to the bait industry).

Coincidentally, Omega Protein, which trades on the New York Stock Exchange under the symbol OME, announced that it expects to release financial results for the recent fiscal quarter on Wednesday, August 3 after the market closes.  Senior management will also hold a conference call on Thursday to review Omega's financial results for the period and provide an update on Company developments. That phone conference is set for 8:30 a.m. EST on Thursday, and those interested in listening in can dial 877-407-0789 (a web replay of the call will be available at noon on Thursday at www.omegaproteininc.com.)

"This time last year, Omega was only trading at about $4 a share, but 12 months later after having had a banner year of decimating bunker stocks in the Chesapeake, this Houston-based fish meal corporation is now trading between $12 and $14 a share," said Jim Donofrio, executive director of the Recreational Fishing Alliance (RFA).  "Perhaps things really turned around for Omega since they mounted their public relations campaign carrying the endorsement of ASMFC's executive director, Vince O'Shea."

Donofrio cited a video created by Omega which prominently features the head of the ASMFC extolling the virtues of the corporate behemoth and its bunker reduction operation.  "Our Commission (ASMFC) and I believe Omega Protein share the common long-term goal of managing menhaden resource that is healthy, abundant and sustainable," O'Shea says on camera, while also claiming that the menhaden resource is healthy.

According to the RFA however, O'Shea's own stock assessment team recently found that overfishing was occurring in 2008 leaving anglers wondering why the executive of an interstate fishery commission would ignore the stock assessment experts while siding instead with a publicly traded corporate entity like Omega

In a story this week by the Washington Post, writer Darryl Fears says commission members will be guided by an assessment that says menhaden has not been overfished but overfishing was occurring in the terminal year, noting that ASMFC voting members are concerned about other data that shows that the number of young fish entering the population is falling off while the number of eggs that sustain menhaden has started to dip below a standard they set.

The Washington Post reports that commissioners are expected to consider a proposal to increase the number of young menhaden, as well as egg production, possibly by reducing the menhaden catch, experts say. A final decision could be made in November after a three-month public comment period is held on whatever proposal the commission adopts.

Thirteen coastal states from Maine to Florida have already banned Omega Protein and other reduction operations in coastal waters, with Virginia being the only state under the ASMFC which allows Omega full access to its waters in the Atlantic and Chesapeake Bay.  RFA believes that this localized depletion of menhaden in the Chesapeake has contributed greatly to recent problems with water quality on the Bay and with resource issues pertaining to blue crabs, oysters, striped bass and weakfish stocks.

"Menhaden are filter feeders which help purify those waters in which they thrive, and have been identified as a keystone species which drives and balances the overall health of the Bay ecosystem.  In addition, menhaden serve as the primary foodstuff of our most important coastal fish stocks including stripers, weakfish, even bluefin tuna and sharks," Donofrio said. "Is it any mystery that our Mid-Atlantic inshore waters have become noticeably clearer in the decade since Omega has driven off the high seas?"

Local grassroots efforts by groups like Maryland Saltwater Sportfishermen's Association (MSSA) continue to put heat on commission members and federal regulators to address the issue of menhaden depletion on the Chesapeake.  In a press release criticizing the Omega Protein publicity video featuring O'Shea, MSSA said "There has been a general feeling that the ASMFC has been overly sensitive to Omega's interests. This, however, brings into question the objectivity of ASMFC when regulating fisheries. Perhaps Mr. O'Shea should at least use better judgment in where and how he voices his opinions. As usual he states that the Menhaden stock is 'healthy' and that the stock is not overfished. From what we've heard about the current assessment, that is hardly an accurate characterization of stock abundance."

"Our friends at MSSA have done a great job with keeping up the pressure with regard to the problems with the reduction industry, particularly with their ongoing Menhaden Muddle Series," Donofrio said.  "The problem here is that we're dealing with a Texas-based corporation which has a lot of political allies and a seat on the New York Stock Exchange, which turns this into far more of a political battle than one of just a small, oily bait fish and a handful of fishermen."

"ASMFC needs to do the right thing here and reduce menhaden harvest for the reduction folks, then we can start to address the highly mechanized vacuum gear used by Omega and start pushing for a complete ban on this type of destructive fishing," Donofrio said.

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