OCEAN CITY — Dead fish washing up on Ocean City beaches, a reduced inshore recreational fishery and a diminished stock of the most important species in the ecological food chain are just a few of the impacts likely caused by a large commercial menhaden processer off the coast of the resort in recent weeks, but, for now, it appears there is no immediate way to stop it.
For the last few weeks, Omega Protein, a Reedville, Va.-based company, has set up outside the three-mile boundary for state waters off the coast of Ocean City, harvesting tons of menhaden. For well over a century, Omega Protein has been harvesting the all-important forage fish, originally for its value in livestock and animal feed but more recently for its growing importance in the fish oil supplement field.
Until now, the company’s presence off the resort’s coast has been met with curiosity from the general public and quiet resentment from the industry, but as recently as last weekend, hundreds of dead forage fish have washed up on the beaches of the resort in the height of the summer season. Fish kills were spotted last week on the beaches at 21st Street and 49th Street.
According to Captain Jeremy Blunt of the sportfishing boat Wrecker out of the Ocean City Fishing Center, the Omega Protein’s mega-purse-seining operation has been working off the coast for at least the last week.
“We’ve seen them off and on over the last week or so as we head out and come in,” said Blunt. “They aren’t allowed to work in state waters in Maryland, so they are hanging just outside the three-mile line. They are working up and down just out the three-mile line well aware of the boundary for state waters.”
The Omega Protein’s nets scoop up all manner of species, but are specifically targeting menhaden, a valuable commodity in the growing fish oil business. However, menhaden are also an important link in the ecological food chain and the forage fish move easily between the Chesapeake Bay and the spawning and nursing areas off the mid-Atlantic coast including Maryland and Virginia. Blunt said this week an overharvest of menhaden has a direct impact on all commercial and recreational fisheries off the coast.
“The fish they are catching are the life-blood of everything out there,” he said. “The discharge is very oily and they pump it right out of the boat. You can see this sheen of oil and fish parts across the top of the water. It’s not good for us and maybe Ocean City needs to get on this and rally the troops and at least let Maryland know what’s going on out here.”
David Sikorski, a volunteer and government liaison for the Coastal Conservation Association of Maryland (CCA), has been monitoring the menhaden harvest off the mid-Atlantic coast closely and sits on a panel attached to the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Council (ASMFC), the governing body for menhaden management. Sikorski said this week a perceived flaw in the menhaden quota system along the Atlantic coast gives Omega Protein the lion’s share of the allowable catch, with just a fraction reserved for Maryland and other states.
Sikorski said under Amendment 2, the current governing fishery management plan for menhaden for the mid-Atlantic region, Virginia is allowed 87 percent of the quota and Omega Protein gets 80 percent of that. New Jersey is allotted nine percent of the mid-Atlantic quota, while Maryland is allotted just 1.37 percent. Sikorski said the ASMFC earlier this month considered an amendment to the current management plan for menhaden, known as Amendment 3, but the revised plan failed to pass by a council of the majority, largely because of complex political issues. In the meantime, Omega Protein continues to own the lion’s share of the menhaden quota, and after essentially being chased out of Virginia Beach, it has set up shop off the coast of Ocean City.
“Menhaden is the most important fish in the sea,” he said. “It’s high in protein and its high in fish oil, which is coveted commercially, but it’s also extremely important ecologically for its place in the food chain. Most of the species inshore recreational anglers target feed on menhaden.”
There is a market for menhaden in the recreational fishing sector as an important bait fish, but the number of fish harvested for that purpose is miniscule compared to the metric tons Omega Protein hauls from the sea.
“Omega Protein is the only company involved in the reduction sector,” said Sikorksi. “There are two sectors — the bait sector and the reduction sector — and Omega Protein is the only company doing the latter.”
Sikorski explained the process by which Omega Protein harvests tons of menhaden off the Maryland coast and in other areas.
“They fly an airplane around to look for schools of menhaden, because they tend to school densely and are easily visible from the air,” he said. “Once the schools are identified, two smaller boats drop huge purse seine nets that cinch at the bottom and the bigger boat comes in and pumps the fish and whatever else they catch into the hold and it is then transported back to Virginia for processing.”
The process is not perfect and there is a considerable by-catch problem for other species snared in the nets. It’s also not unusual for the big purse-seining operation to lose a large number of menhaden, although the number of fish that wash up dead on the beaches is tiny compared to what is hauled in.
“If we’re starting to see dead menhaden on the beaches in Ocean City, that’s almost assuredly because of their activity off the Maryland coast,” he said. “Through their process of pulling the nets and pumping the fish aboard the big boat, they might have spilled some or a net might have torn. Percentage-wise, it’s a very small number compared to what they’re hauling aboard, but nobody wants to see dead fish along the beaches in a resort town during the summer or at any other time of year. When they were working off Virginia Beach, the beaches there were often littered with rotten, stinking fish.”
After witnessing thousands of dead fish washing up on the beaches, and a sheen of oily fish parts on the ocean’s surface, the Virginia Beach recreational fishing sector was able to successfully broker a deal with Omega Protein to move the operation out of their area, which is, in part, the reason the operation has now set up shop off Maryland’s coast. Sikorski pointed out Omega Protein is within its legal rights to operate in federal waters off Maryland’s coast.
“What they are doing is not illegal,” he said. “We may have some differences of opinion on what they are doing ethically or ecologically, but they are within their rights and there is little Maryland can do about it right now. Maryland doesn’t allow purse-seining, but they are working just beyond the three-mile limit for state waters, and even though they are likely impacting inshore fishing, and even causing some dead fish to wash up on the beaches in a tourist area in the height of the summer season, they are not doing anything wrong under the current management plan.”
Sikorski said until the ASMFC votes on a possible change to the quota system, and moves from a reduction standpoint to an ecologic-based management plan, the Omega Protein operation will likely continue off Ocean City and anywhere else along the mid-Atlantic coast where menhaden are found in large quantities.
“We differ scientifically on how menhaden are managed because we know just how important they are to the ecosystem,” he said. “When you remove a species from the ecosystem, it changes everything.”
Omega Protein could not be reached for comment this week, but even opponents to the operation understand the company is well within its legal rights. They just wish it didn’t come with harm to the local fishery.
“It’s just a really complex issue, and even though they are working practically in sight of land off Ocean City’s coast, they are well within their legal rights in federal waters,” Sikorski said. “There is no purse-seining ban in federal waters and they are apparently working just around the edges of state waters.”
Sikorski said there are even conflicts in how the menhaden stock is assessed. ASMFC officials consider biomass data as the deciding factor for menhaden population when considering quota adjustments, but the sheer estimated weight of the stock can sometimes be deceiving.
“They consider biomass when determining the health of the menhaden and make certain assumptions about the abundance of the fish,” he said. “We might have a large biomass, but the abundance is small because it’s made up of a lot of large fish. From an ecosystem standpoint, that’s not real good because most of the species targeted by inshore recreational fishermen forage for the smaller fish. To be fair to Omega Protein, the most valuable menhaden to them are the bigger ones, but their nets are catching menhaden of all sizes.”
For now, the CCA and the recreational and commercial fishing sectors in Maryland are keeping a close eye on the proposed amendment vote, which could come as soon as October.
“There is nothing we can do alone,” he said. “There is really nothing the state can do. The only thing to do is continue to apply political pressure. In Virginia Beach, they were able to successfully broker a gentlemen’s agreement for Omega Protein not to harvest directly off the coast. It’s kind of an out of sight, out of mind thing, because they’re still out there, but they moved off and the inshore fishing improved dramatically.”
For Blunt and many in the recreational and sportfishing community in Ocean City, it might take a grassroots effort to change the quota system and move the company off the resort’s coast.
“I don’t know at this point how to get them out of here,” he said. “Our friends in Virginia have been battling them for years and they have finally come to some mutual agreement to not work right off the coast in Virginia Beach and now they’re up here doing the same thing. It will probably take a lot of meetings and hearings, but we’re going to get organized and let our feelings known on the issue.”