Omega Protein’s lobbyists can hardly contain their disbelief.
In an op-ed published in the January issue of The National Fisherman, David Frulla and Shaun Gehan, Washington lawyers representing Omega Protein, minimize efforts to limit over-exploitation of a fish species crucial to the Atlantic marine ecosystem by saying “menhaden have become a ‘cause célébre.’”
Frulla and Gehan are referring to the 90,000 comments submitted by people from around the globe on behalf of the little fish that has come to be known as “the most important fish in the sea.”
In letters, emails, and petitions, concerned citizens asked regulators at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to preserve more Atlantic menhaden from commercial nets, citing stock assessment science and independent peer review showing that the menhaden population was in poor shape.
In a landmark decision in November 2011, the ASMFC responded. Over the next year the allowable menhaden catch will be cut as much as 37 percent from the 2010 harvest.
This doesn’t sit well with Omega Protein, the industrial fishing company responsible for 80 percent of the coast-wide menhaden catch — about a quarter billion pounds annually.
Frulla and Gehan have apparently been tasked with undermining the ASMFC’s decision, and have attempted to do so with their typical resourcefulness. Ignoring the scientific basis for the ASMFC vote, they argue that the terms of the debate have been set by H. Bruce Franklin, author of the meticulously researched book The Most Important Fish in the Sea. Frulla and Gehan call him a “science fiction expert.”
Then they repeat their usual arguments: that menhaden stock is “just about at target level of abundance” (yes, but only in terms of eggs, not fish that grow into the population); and that “overfishing occurred in only the last year of the assessment, 2008” (only if measured by the outdated reference points that the ASMFC replaced in November 2011 with new ones that reflect the latest peer-reviewed science).
But the most egregious part of Frulla and Gehan’s op-ed comes when the pair insults the Marine Stewardship Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service — the leading certifier of sustainable seafood, and the federal agency tasked with responsible stewardship of marine resources in the EEZ, respectively.
“Against well-reasoned, scientific counter-argument, the Marine Stewardship Council established a blanket certification standard of 75 percent of unfished abundance for ‘lower trophic level species,’ a.k.a forage fish,” Frulla and Gehan write.
I called Daniel Hoggarth, the Senior Fisheries Assessment Manager at the Marine Stewardship Council, to see if he had any clarification about what “well-reasoned scientific counter argument” Omega Protein’s lawyers were referring to.
“I don’t know what they mean – did they cite any counter-argument?” he asked.
None that I could see.
Hoggarth told me that the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) spent years developing this policy, comparing the results from their technical team with other scientists doing similar work on forage species, as well as consulting widely on the policy with various interest groups, including commercial interests. Omega Protein, he said, did not participate in the process, although stakeholders were invited to comment.
“It’s common sense. If you have a stock which is a key species in these ecosystems — one species in the middle that is dominant and other species are dependent on it — you need to leave more of these key fish in the sea,” Hoggarth said.
The Marine Stewardship Council wasn’t Frulla and Gehnan’s only target. They also went after the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS): “This [menhaden advocacy campaign] is abetted by NMFS’ off-handed and statutorily unwarranted advice that council’s ‘consider’ managing such stocks above levels that produce maximum sustainable yield,” Frulla and Gehan write.
To explain the legalese in that sentence, I contacted Ken Stump, policy director for the Marine Fish Conservation Network.
“They are playing politics, trying to put enough of a dent in [NMFS’] armor to discredit them. They said ‘unwarranted,’ but didn’t use any specific legal language to back that up because there is none,” Stump said.
The “off-handed advice” cited by Omega’s legal team comes from NMFS’ 2009 revision to the 1998 National Standard Guidelines for National Standard 1, in which the agency acknowledged for the first time the importance of maintaining adequate forage for all components of the ecosystem.
One has to wonder what Eric Schwaab, the director of NMFS, must have thought when he opened his copy of the National Fisherman to see his regular column printed next to an attack on his agency by two Washington DC-based lawyers, paid to keep the regulatory climate favorable for the financial interests of Omega Protein.
“Gehan and Frulla have a set of different assumptions, and those assumptions don’t account for anything outside the fishery,” Ken Stump told me. “One lens is the lens that Shaun Gehan looks through that says the overfishing is barely occurring and the stock is in good shape. Then there is the other lens, this emerging generation of marine ecologists that says this species feeds the whole system.”
A recent landmark study on forage fish, published in the journal Science, and carried out by a team of researchers from across the globe, concluded that halving the exploitation rates of forage species like menhaden would significantly lower stress on marine ecosystems, while allowing for some commercial fishing opportunities.
For over a decade, Omega Protein was able to harvest as many menhaden from the Atlantic Ocean as they could find. Now, over 90,000 people and fisheries managers from every state along the coast, save Virginia, believe that is too much.
Clearly, news of the first coastwide harvest cap for menhaden has found Omega Protein and its litigators incredulous: they call the ASMFC coastal management program a form of “ecosystem micromanagement.”
Frulla is a partner and Gehan is an associate at the Kelley Drye firm in Washington DC. According to Kelley Drye’s financial filings, mandated under the 1995 Lobbying Disclosure Act of 1995, Omega Protein has paid the firm 1.5 million over the last four years for their lobbying services.
Their disbelief, it seems, has a price.