Proposed limit angers big bay fish processor

Proposed menhaden limit enrages big fish processor

March 01, 2006|By JAY HANCOCK

Omega Protein, facing limits on its Chesapeake Bay harvest, says it's the undeserving victim of ecology nuts, misguided scientists and the yachting crowd.

"We'll not simply allow these special-interest groups that are kind of coming up with these prostituted science numbers to make their claims" unchallenged, says Omega spokesman Ben Landry.

Opponents say the Houston company is a corporate bully whose enormous catch of menhaden - an inedible fish harvested for centuries as fertilizer and animal feed - threatens the bay and whose management has refused to compromise.

"These guys are really something," says Bill Goldsborough, senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. "There's just all kinds of gamesmanship. It's ridiculous."

At issue is not just a critical piece of fisheries regulation but the future of omega-3 fatty-acid food supplements, one of the best-known nutritional plays on Wall Street.

Nobody is getting rich yet on omega-3 additives. But the politics and economics of natural-resource extraction have created head winds for Omega and made rival Martek Biosciences, based in Columbia and able to make omega-3 oils in the lab, look like a (comparatively) better prospect.

Both companies sell supplements containing long-chain, omega-3 fatty acids, which studies suggest can prevent heart disease, treat arthritis, improve brain and eye function and even relieve depression.

Martek makes its omega-3 from algae. Omega, which claims to be the biggest producer of omega-3 fish oils for human consumption, gets its extract from menhaden.

Omega catches thousands of tons of menhaden in the Virginia Chesapeake as well as ocean waters with spotter planes and huge nets surrounding the schools. The haul is so impressive the technique is banned in most East Coast states, including Maryland, and regularly ranks Omega's tiny Reedville, Va., port near the top of U.S. fishing bases.

Reedville was No. 2 in 2004, with 400 million pounds landed, according to regulators.

Omega sells most of the fish as livestock feed, but it's trying to grow the food-additive business and constructed an $18 million plant in Reedville two years ago to improve its processing.

Citing suggestive but inconclusive evidence that big harvests hurt Chesapeake menhaden stocks and indirectly harm other species, regulators voted last summer to limit the bay catch to the average of several previous years and to study the matter more closely. That ignited protest from Omega and a volley of counterattacks from people who worry about the consequences of heavy fishing.

Omega lobbyist Toby Gascon "stalked out of the meeting room, refusing to talk to reporters" after the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission approved a five-year cap on the Chesapeake menhaden harvest, The Capital of Annapolis reported.

Gascon had proposed a voluntary cap that is about a fourth higher than the commission's annual limit of 105,800 metric tons; 105,800 tons is still higher than what Omega has caught in recent years and shouldn't harm the company, quota backers say.

Environmental agitator Greenpeace demonstrated in Reedville and tried to disrupt menhaden harvesting last year, according to news reports.

Lefty magazine Mother Jones weighed in with a typically subdued, nuanced piece in its latest issue, comparing Omega owner Malcolm Glazer with C. Montgomery Burns, the evil nuclear-plant tycoon from The Simpsons, and referring to "the slaughter" of the menhaden and to possibly "unleashing an ecological catastrophe."

Glazer's an easy target because his Zapata Corp. holding company was once owned by George H. W. Bush, father of the president, and he rubbed millions of Englishmen the wrong way by mounting a successful American takeover of Manchester United soccer club.

Last week Omega CEO Joseph L. von Rosenberg III wrote a letter to The Washington Post claiming the fisheries commission "is being pushed by a combination of special-interest groups ranging from Greenpeace to wealthy yacht owners."

Omega says government studies show the East Coast menhaden population is not overfished. But environmentalists say there are signs of menhaden decline in the Chesapeake, and they note that menhaden are ecologically crucial "filter" fish, performing the double duty of eating oxygen-depleting phytoplankton and acting as food for striped bass and other species.

"The Omega guys will say there is no science supporting the cap," says the Chesapeake Bay Foundation's Goldsborough. "Well, that's just total BS."

A court fight looks likely. Virginia's General Assembly failed to ratify the commission menhaden limit, which sets the stage for federal intervention this summer.

Neither Omega nor Martek is a "buy" at the moment. Their stocks sell for outrageous multiples of profits. But Omega's challenges seem especially difficult. Even Glazer seems to think so. In December he said he was trying to sell the company.

jay.hancock@baltsun.com

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