Omega Protein’s Private Communications Reveal Attempts to Influence Science

menhaden pily

Emails unearthed in a Freedom of Information Act request indicate that representatives of Omega Protein sought to influence the official government science that determines how many Atlantic menhaden are in the ocean.

The emails also suggest that state officials in Virginia were willing to help Omega lobby to limit fishing restrictions that could be imposed to safeguard the menhaden stock.

Omega Protein, the largest commercial harvester of menhaden along the Atlantic coast, nets a quarter to half a billion pounds of menhaden each year. The company’s stock prices have been falling since November, when the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) decided that regulations must be updated to protect more breeding-age menhaden fish from Omega Protein’s nets.

The ASMFC’s decision was based on a peer-reviewed stock assessment from 2010 that revealed that Atlantic menhaden have suffered a massive decline – as much as 91 percent in the last 25 years.

After considerable public outcry over the dire results, the ASMFC implemented new reference points – something akin to scientific goal posts — to measure the health of the menhaden population. Before assigning a coast-wide quota, or a strict limit on fish catch, however, the agency said it would wait for the stock assessment to be updated with the most recent data. That update was scheduled for spring 2012.

Because the updated stock assessment — also called “turn of the crank” assessment — could determine limits on Omega’s future harvesting, the company has a clear interest in its outcome.

Since government scientists began meeting about the stock assessment in May, the Public Trust Project and other organizations have expressed concerns about whether that interest may have turned to unscrupulous meddling in the science that helps determine the health of the Atlantic menhaden population.

For example, Omega Protein hired consultants to participate in the stock assessment process on the company’s behalf. At a meeting of government scientists earlier this year in North Carolina, the contributions of Omega consultants outweighed those of the scientists who were officially nominated to sit on the panel by state and federal agencies.

In subsequent meetings, consultants inserted guidance and recommendations into ASMFC procedure, and even presented alternate science that could be used to bolster outcomes in the company’s favor.

One of the consultants, Doug Butterworth, a statistician and stock assessment expert from South Africa, dominated the conversation at the North Carolina meeting to the point that some government scientists felt he had crossed the line.

Butterworth was particularly vocal about his interest in including “dome shaped selectivity” in the model.

The current stock assessment model, peer reviewed in 2010, assumes a “flat-topped selectivity” in the menhaden fishery; that is, the model supposes that the fish netted by industry are representative of all but the smallest menhaden encountered by the nets.

Dome-shaped selectivity assumes that not only are very small fish missed by the nets, but that the largest and oldest fish are not caught either, and therefore are not reflected by data that measure menhaden’s abundance. One of Omega Protein’s arguments is that the oldest menhaden might be congregating off the New England coast, beyond the reaches of the commercial fishery.

If the ASFMC concludes, based on computer model estimates, that there has been a dramatic increase in menhaden in the north, the panel could decide not to cut back Omega Protein’s harvest. That would only be good news for a company that nets a nearly half a billion menhaden out of the Atlantic each year.

“If you have the data to support it, [using dome shaped selectivity] is perfectly fine. But if you’re wrong, you are saying the stock is in much better shape than in fact it is,” says Richen Brame, the Atlantic Fisheries Director for the Coastal Conservation Association.

That’s Omega Protein’s problem: It doesn’t have the data. But the company is trying to get it.

Last year, Omega hired a New England University biologist named James Sulikowski to conduct an aerial survey from Long Island, New York to Portland, Maine, in what has historically been the northern range for migrating menhaden.

According to Sulikowski’s report, also obtained through a FOIA request, Sulikowski and his team flew in spotter planes for 54.25 hours between August and October 2011, searching for schools of menhaden from their perch at 1,000 ft.  (Menhaden schooling tightly look like reddish-brown patches when seen from above).

Sulikowski split the ocean between Long Island and Portland into three sections.

Region 1 encompassed the waters between Long Island and southern Rhode Island (an area that is well within the range of the New Jersey-centered bait fishery), and Sulikowki estimated that he found 16 million pounds of fish in 13 hours of flying.

In Region 2, from Rhode Island to Boston, he found 580,000 pounds of fish in nearly 15 hours of flight time.

Most striking, however, was that Sulikwoski found just 550,000 pounds of fish after flying more than 26 hours in Region 3, between Boston and Maine.

For a commercial fishery that catches over 700 times that amount annually, this suggests that a miniscule amount of fish swim beyond of the range of commercial netters.

But data from this survey is preliminary at best. In an interview in December, Sulikowski told the Public Trust Project that his research would have to continue for a period of years before it would be statistically significant.

Nevertheless, Sulikowsi and Butterworth prepared a presentation to the panel of government scientists, formally known as the Technical Committee, on June 25th, in which they argued that that using the aerial results, dome-shaped selectivity, and a few other tweaks in the model structure, the updated stock assessment could show that the overall menhaden stock is at least twice as large as the current stock assessment projects.

“If the Sulikowski study was more completely developed and peer reviewed, and had gone on over a period of years, they could make an argument that there are a lot of big fish in the population that are not being caught by the reduction fishery. Then you might use that as an argument for dome selectivity,” says Jud Crawford, the Science and Policy Manager for the Northeast Fisheries Program at the Pew Environment Group.

Emails obtained by the Public Trust Project suggest that Omega Protein executives know just how important dome-shaped selectivity is to the outcome of the stock assessment.

In an email dated April 23rd 2012, Ben Landry, Omega Protein’s Public Affairs director, wrote to Jack Travelstead, head of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission (VMRC), who represents Virginia on the ASMFC.

Landry’s email cited a response he received from ASFMC officials Louis Daniel and Bob Beale laying out the ASFMC’s “existing and inflexible assessment process . . . for ‘turn of the crank’ assessments.”

Landry wrote that there was a chance to influence the “the model’s aging selectivity and the possibility for adjusting the dome, but we’ll need to push extra hard for this to be conducted for this assessment. If they wait 3 years until the benchmark assessment, the menhaden fishery could potentially be already significantly damaged by harvest cuts and the doming selectivity at that point would be ‘too little, too late.’”

Other recipients of the email included Rob O’Reilly, the head of fishery management at VMRC, and Joe Grist, a VMRC fishery management officer and scientist.

Landry’s email suggests strongly that Omega Protein is actively lobbying for dome-shaped selectivity, anticipating that it could change the picture of the stock provided to the ASMFC. He also indicates that the industry’s interest in “doming selectivity” is not based on improving the existing science, but on influencing the model to affect the company’s bottom line.

Jack Travelstead, the highest-ranking marine fisheries official in the state of Virginia, responded to Landry’s email the same day. His answer suggested a willingness to lobby on Omega’s behalf. He even volunteers the services of one of his staff members.

“Ben, I suspect this might be an uphill battle, especially if the Board digs its heels in, based simply on past protocol….,” Travelstead wrote. “Joe Grist will pursue furthering this along with the TC [Technical Committee], and I will certainly raise the issue at the Board meeting.”

In a phone interview, Landry defended his decision to discuss dome-shaped selectivity with Jack Travelstead.

“The peer reviewers from the previous stock assessment were the first to urge the stock assessment subcommittee to look at different types of selectivity curves. That idea didn’t come on our radar until the peer reviewers put that forward,” he said. “For us to remain a viable company, to pay our bills, not to turn away tons of employees and put them on the streets, we have do what we can to make sure that northern range is counted in the assessment.”

When asked for comment on his email, Travelstead responded, “As with all science, we want it to be fully vetted by the [Technical Committee] to make sure that it is considered. I suspect, down the road, it will be looked at when further stock assessments are done. My impression is it’s not quite ready for prime time, but could be more fully vetted when another benchmark assessment is done.”

As for the appearance that Travelstead was willing to lobby on Omega Protein’s behalf, Travelstead said, “Omega Protein is one of our constituents. We get advice from all number and manner of stakeholders. We use all of those comments to formulate all of those opinions. I think that’s the standard. We try to assist our stakeholders when we can, and when we don’t agree, then we can’t. All we’re about it making sure all of the available science is fully considered by the Technical folks, and then what happens with it beyond that point is up to the TC.”

In the intervening months since that email exchange, “dome-shaped selectivity” has gained traction with some Technical Committee scientists. Erik Williams, a senior stock assessment scientist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, has supported analysis of dome-shaped selectivity in the updated assessment.

“I suspect at a minimum we’ll be investigating it to see whether we have enough data to support a particular configuration of dome shaped selectivity as a base run. What worries me is what information we’re going to base the dome shaped selectivity on,” Williams told the Public Trust Project in a phone interview.

Omega Protein, by advocating dome-shaped selectivity, is pursuing its commercial interests through political intervention in what is supposed to be an objective process. But is it scientifically valid to include dome-shaped selectivity in the stock assessment?

A research fisheries biologist at NMFS, who has led multiple stock assessments, says that dome-shaped selectivity is often used without justification. He declined to be identified.

“We’re often looking for a mechanistic reason [to use dome-shaped selectivity],” the biologist said. “It needs to biologically make sense. There needs to be a reason why the older fish are not showing up. My personal opinion is that dome shaped selectivity gets thrown around out there when there aren’t mechanistic reasons for using it.”

It remains to be seen whether the Menhaden Technical Committee and the ASMFC will support the inclusion of Sulikowski’s data and Butterworth’s edits to the model.

What we do know is that Omega Protein is pushing hard to affect the scientific process. And it may be getting unwitting help from Virginia’s taxpayers.

Read the Full Text of Omega Protein’s Emails