Stocks of a small, herring-like fish that provide omega-3 essential fatty acids for supplements taken by millions of people could be endangered because of the western world’s obsession with health foods, conservationists warn.
At risk is the future of the menhaden fish, which breeds in Chesapeake Bay and lives along America’s eastern seaboard. Vast shoals are being vacuumed up at a time, threatening the ecosystem, it is claimed.
The issue has set Greenpeace against the American billionaire and new owner of Manchester United, Malcolm Glazer. His family owns and runs Omega Protein Corp, which fishes the bay. Mr Glazer’s son Avram is chairman of Omega and a director of Manchester United.
On Saturday, Greenpeace staged a protest outside one of Omega’s plants in Chesapeake Bay demanding a moratorium for the entire fishery, and an end to the company taking menhaden out of the bay – claiming its 66 vessels and 30 spotter planes are threatening the entire stock.
Greenpeace is not alone in its battle with the company. Sports fishermen along the coast claim that striped bass – their main target – are starving because its principal food, menhaden, is fast disappearing. The menhaden is valued for other reasons, primarily because it filters sea water for its food, cleaning up the pollution in the creeks and inshore bay areas.
The demonstration was the latest round in a struggle to convince US Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to control catches until the true stock position of this valuable fish can be properly assessed by scientists.
A series of 12 hearings is being held along the coast to gauge public opinion before August 1, after which a decision will be taken. The commission rejected a proposal by Omega, which takes 90% of the entire east coast catch, to cap its take at 135,000 tonnes annually for the next four years while stocks were assessed. The company has set up a larger reprocessing plant at Reedville, Virginia, and critics say the proposed cap was larger than the current catch.
Ranged against the company is a group called Menhaden Matter – a cooperative of conservation and recreation organisations – including the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, Coastal Conservation Association, Environmental Defense and the National Coalition for Marine Conservation.
The commission is suggesting a cap of 110,400 tonnes until more research can be done, but is under pressure to reduce this total further. Nancy Wallace, coordinator for the commission, said at a meeting that there was no evidence that the entire east coast stock was depleted. But she added that scientists did not have a clear picture on what is happening with the population specific to Chesapeake Bay and that “the potential exists” for localised depletion.
Bill Deffenbaugh, a former fishery biologist, said he supported the most stringent cap to avoid paying a tax to treat sewage going into the bay.
He said: “A robust menhaden population would do the work of removing nutrients rather than paying a [flush] tax.”
At another meeting at Northern Neck, support for Omega came from James M Long, president of the county chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
“Omega has been good to our people, our schools and our economy. An industry with good people, good pay and good benefits is something every place needs,” he said of the Reedville plant that employs about 250 people in the May-December fishing season, making it the third largest fishing port in the US.
Nancy Hwa of Greenpeace said, “We’d like to see sustainable, small-scale fisheries. At the rate Omega is going, these jobs won’t be there in a couple of generations.”
Toby Gascon, Omega’s director of government affairs, refused to talk to the Guardian about the demonstration, saying: “Company policy is to have no comment at this time.”
However, he is quoted in the local newspaper, the Rappahannock Record, accusing opponents of scaremongering: “We obviously want the resource to be healthy because it’s important for what we do.”
Fats of life
· The best type of omega-3 is found in fish, as it is high in two essential fatty acids crucial to health: DHA (docosahexaenoic acid) and EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid).
· Western diets contain very little omega-3. Hydrogenation, the process used to give fats a long shelf-life, removes it.
· Omega-3 is said be of benefit to conditions such as depression, chronic fatigue syndrome (ME), heart disease and period pain.