A handful of Atlantic menhaden.

A handful of Atlantic menhaden.

Menhaden, or pogy, is a fairly small fish that’s been getting a lot of attention. Not typically eaten by people, it’s a major food source for many fish we do eat — striped bass and bluefish — along with a number of marine mammals. It’s also a hot commercial commodity, an ingredient in products ranging from animal feed to nutritional supplements, many worry is being over-fished. We talk about new catch quotas and the menhaden’s place in the Chesapeake Bay ecosystem.


  • Chris Moore Senior Scientist, Chesapeake Bay Foundation
  • Darryl Fears Reporter, Washington Post
  • Ben Landry Director of Public Affairs, Omega Protein, Inc.


  • 13:30:05

    MR. KOJO NNAMDILife near the bottom of the food chain can be rough. And for the menhaden, an oily bait fish with myriad commercial uses there are predators of all stripes. People don't eat the fish but the striped bass and blue crabs many of us enjoy do. And the little fish's big business in Virginia where it's harvesting for use in everything from pet food to makeup is worth an estimated $40 million a year. But concerns over overfishing of menhaden have led to new limits on the catch.

  • 13:30:35

    MR. KOJO NNAMDIHere to help us understand the importance of the small but mighty menhaden is Darryl Fears. He's a reporter with the Washington Post where he currently covers the environment focusing on the Chesapeake Bay and issues affecting wildlife. Darryl Fears, Happy New Year. Thank you for joining us.

  • 13:30:50

    MR. DARRYL FEARSThank you for having me, Kojo.

  • 13:30:51

    NNAMDIJoining us by phone from Norfolk, Va. is Chris Moore. He is a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Christ Moore, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:30:59

    MR. CHRIS MOOREThank you for having me.

  • 13:31:01

    NNAMDIChris, this is a fish that you won't find on a menu. What exactly is menhaden and where does it fit into the greater Chesapeake Bay ecosystem?

  • 13:31:10

    MOORESure. Well, menhaden is a species from the herring family, a fairly small fish. A big menhaden is really only about a pound, Silvered in color. And they kind of have a lifecycle that the adults spend most of their life offshore, anywhere from really zero to about 15, 20 miles offshore. And as they're moving up and down the coast they're spawning. And those young fish migrate into the various estuaries along the east coast and live about the first year of their life or so.

  • 13:31:45

    MOOREAnd after that time they migrate back out into the -- what we call the coastal migratory population and live out the rest of their life, which is fairly short, about six, eight, maybe ten years as part of that coastal migratory population. While they're in the estuaries, like the Chesapeake Bay, they're obviously growing very quickly, consuming algae (word?) things like that. But most importantly they serve as a food source for a myriad of different predators within the ecosystem from striped bass and blue fish to ospreys and loons, to even marine mammals at times.

  • 13:32:23

    CONGRESSMAN ROBERT GOODLATTEAnd that is really the important of menhaden is to be out there converting really sunshine, because a lot of what they eat is algae, into flesh that's in -- that energy is moved up the food chain as they're eaten by other species.

  • 13:32:39

    NNAMDIWell, Darryl Fears, why is this fish that people don't eat but, you know, Chris has already pointed out how important it is in the ecosystem, but why is it so sought after?

  • 13:32:52

    FEARSWell, it's so valuable to this one company called Omega Protein which fishes this fish by the metric ton -- many metric tons for many years. And it's used for animal feed. It's used for, like you said earlier, makeup, even oil -- various oils. So the fish is valuable for Omega Protein. They say it's valuable for fisherman in Reedville, Va., the only place on the Atlantic Coast where it's processed. It's a huge industry and Omega Protein, which has so much stake in this fish, says that it will affect, if it goes away, a lot of fishermen and people who rely on that industry.

  • 13:33:40

    NNAMDIWe will be talking alter in the broadcast with a spokesperson for Omega Protein, but until then, Chris Moore, for a tiny fish menhaden has sparked some pretty big controversy going back at least a decade. What's at the heart of the matter here?

  • 13:33:55

    MOOREWell, there are a number of different things I think. Menhaden, like all of our different fish species that are harvested, are subject to regulations to ensure that we harvest an appropriate amount. And therefore leave an appropriate amount in the water for them to serve their ecological function. And in the case of menhaden that's to be eaten by other fish. But also you want to leave enough fish out there to ensure that you have a healthy population moving forward.

  • 13:34:25

    MOOREAlso, as Darryl related, we have one company that harvests about 80 percent of the menhaden coast wide, which is Omega Protein, and they operate out of Reedville, Va. But we also have a tremendous number of other commercial fisheries that are dependent upon menhaden that we tent to classify as bait fisheries. And they're -- they catch bait in Virginia, Maryland, New Jersey, all different states along the east coast. But those bait fisheries supply menhaden to some of our most important bay fisheries like the blue crab fishery, but also the very iconic fisheries like the lobster fishery in the northeast.

  • 13:35:07

    MOORESo all of these states along the Atlantic coast for the most part also have smaller fisheries that are very important to the local or regional economies that supply bait to both commercial and recreational fisheries. The management of menhaden I think has become the center issue primarily in Virginia because we're the only state that still allows the purse seining of menhaden. And that's a fairly large and efficient gear type which the commercial fisherman deploy a purse seine, which is a large net that's been pursed from the bottom using one or two smaller boats from a mother ship.

  • 13:35:50

    MOOREAnd a lot of times they do this with the aid of a commercial spotter plane that actually spots the school of fish prior to actually trying to encircle them with the net. So it's a very efficient fishery. In addition I think another reason there's been consternation about the management of this species is that in Virginia menhaden is the only fish -- marine fish or fish worth fishing for that matter that is still managed by our general assembly. All of our other fish species in Virginia are either managed by the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, their marine species, or in the Virginia Department (unintelligible) fisheries if they're fresh water species.

  • 13:36:27

    NNAMDIDarryl, two questions. So many of us may not have heard of the fish before. A lot of people, in Virginia in particular, rely on this industry around it for jobs. Just how big a business is this?

  • 13:36:41

    FEARSWell, I've heard a $40 million figure in Reedville. And like I said before, there are also fishermen in Reedville but there's trucking related to it, spotter plane pilots, any processors, any number of things. And so it's a big deal in Virginia. Chris just pointed out that it's the only fishery managed by -- on the Atlantic coast -- among the 15 states on the Atlantic coast managed by the General Assembly. And there are questions around that in terms of how much money Omega Protein donates to members of the General Assembly to keep that fishery there. There are experts in Virginia in the state who can manage that fishery and don't. And so the question is why not?

  • 13:37:29

    NNAMDIWell, new limits, Darryl, on catches were set in mid-December. Will you set the scene at the vote and tell us what the outcome was?

  • 13:37:38

    FEARSI hadn't expected what I walked into the room and saw that day. There were people cheering for menhaden to continue the fishery and they were -- the fishery as it is now. And people who were cheering the commission on to reduce the menhaden catch limit...

  • 13:37:59

    NNAMDIAnd this is the Atlantic State's Marine Fisheries Commission.

  • 13:38:02

    FEARSExactly. Meeting in Baltimore about a week-and-a-half ago to reduce the catch by a certain amount. They wound up reducing it by 20 percent. There were groups there that wanted a much larger reduction, the Greenpeace. And I think the Pew Foundation wanted a 50 percent reduction, which would've pretty much destroyed Omega Protein and stopped the fishery there, and so what they agreed on, which is something that many states in the commission could live with.

  • 13:38:29

    FEARSBut it was the first time I walked into a fisheries commission meeting and saw an atmosphere that was kind of like a football game where people were color coordinated. They were wearing their yellow shirts. They had their yellow cards. They threw those up. They got a little loud. They were rebuked by the chairman of the commission. It was a spectacle and it was a joy to cover actually.

  • 13:38:53

    NNAMDIWhat was the ultimate decision?

  • 13:38:55

    FEARSA 20 percent reduction in the menhaden catch. And so it will go down 20 percent to 170 million metric tons. Chris can correct me if I'm wrong there. And so that is a reduction that Omega Protein will have to live with. Now I heard that as a result of that Virginia's thinking about leaving the commission, which might be problematic for them. But it is Omega Protein that it's going to affect their processing down the line, which that's...

  • 13:39:28

    NNAMDIWe'll hear more about what Omega Protein has to say after this short break. Because when we come back we will be talking with Ben Landry. He is the director of Public Affairs at Omega Protein, Inc. You can call us if you have questions or comments at 800-433-8850. Or you can send email to kojo@wamu.org or send us a Tweet at kojoshow. Have you used menhaden for bait or been involved in its commercial fishing? Call us 800-433-8850. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

  • 13:41:37

    NNAMDIWelcome back to our conversation on the menhaden. We're talking with Darryl Fears. He is a reporter with the Washington Post. He covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay, and issues affecting wildlife. Chris Moore is a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, and joining us now by phone from Houston, Texas is Ben Landry, director of public affairs with Omega Protein, Incorporated, which owns a menhaden processing plant in the Virginia town of Reedville. Ben Landry, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:42:06

    MR. BEN LANDRYOf course. Thank you for having me. I'm looking forward to joining the conversation.

  • 13:42:11

    NNAMDIWhat does Omega Protein use the menhaden caught off Virginia for?

  • 13:42:17

    LANDRYTwo primary products. Fish meal, which is a high-protein additive in livestock feed as well as aquaculture feed, and fish oil, which is used in the animal nutrition world, as well human nutrition in the form of Omega 3 fatty acid capsules as well as function of food. So, you know, we're no longer in the cosmetic industry or industrial lubricants...

  • 13:42:45

    NNAMDIOh, okay.

  • 13:42:46

    LANDRY...like we were maybe 75 years ago. But what we're doing now, we're improving the lives of, you know, of many animals that we see, even companion animals likes dogs as well as humans.

  • 13:42:59

    NNAMDIIf Omega's business relies on menhaden, it would seem that your company should have a very strong interest in ensuring the health and the prosperity of the population. Why do you think the catch limits go too far, the 20 percent reduction?

  • 13:43:15

    LANDRYWell, you're right, and no entity has more interest in a sustainable menhaden resource than Omega Protein. You know, given that the harvest was cut by 20 percent on a coast-wide basis, you know, that's the level of harvest that the ASMFC feels comfortable with. We disagreed with it. We feel that, you know, since there's kind of this cloud of uncertainty regarding the health of the population, that a more measured approach, maybe a 10 percent cut, or even a 15 percent cut would have allowed for greater flexibility, you know, with maintaining our current job force as well as protecting the population, but 20 percent is where the commission decided to move to and, you know, the company is going to abide by that.

  • 13:44:09

    NNAMDIWhat does this catch limit mean for your company's workers in Reedville, Va., in the short term? How many workers do you have in Reedville, Va., and what does this catch limit mean in the short term?

  • 13:44:23

    LANDRYOmega Protein employs roughly 300 people in Reedville, Va., in along really that northern neck of the state. But these 20 percent -- this 20 percent job -- harvest cut is going to result in job loss. How much right now we don't know. It's certainly going to at least take one vessel out of our fleet. You know, but we're looking at ways of trying to minimize the job loss, but any business will tell you, you know, when you take 20 percent -- a 20 percent cut, it's going to result in job loss, and it's really difficult to maintain that work force, but we're doing our best to try and lessen that blow.

  • 13:45:06

    NNAMDIChris Moore, this is a fairly complicated issue, and menhaden has been a bit of a political football in the commonwealth of Virginia. With the passage of this quota, are things likely to die down?

  • 13:45:19

    MOOREWe hope so. The quota does have to -- this -- the new harvest quota, along with some other things, have to be adopted in Virginia by our General Assembly, and they actually start meeting next week. And we hope that as the members of the General Assembly learn more about this species, its important, obviously not only to the economy, but also to the ecology (word?) in the region, that they understand how managing this resource in a wise manner means that in the future we can have a healthy population of menhaden that will be healthy for the business interests that are dependent upon menhaden as their catch, but also for those other species in Chesapeake Bay that are dependent upon menhaden, and a healthy population of menhaden is going to make sure we have healthy populations of other species in the bay as well.

  • 13:46:10

    NNAMDIWe did reach out to the Virginia Marine Resources Commission about Commissioner Jack Travelstead's availability. He is traveling today and couldn't join us for this conversation. But Darryl Fears, there is the likelihood, since the General Assembly of Virginia manages this issue itself, what is the likelihood that the General Assembly may vote to remove itself from this several-state marine commission?

  • 13:46:36

    FEARSI don't know how likely that is. I think that Virginia has made threats to remove itself from the commission in the past and did not so. I think Virginia also gets federal funds to help manage this fishery of not just menhaden, but this entire fishery, and then those funds pay for the science of managing that fishery. So it's going to be difficult for them to do that. They would have to pay to understand their fishery on their own, and so I'm not sure how likely Virginia is to do that, but any threat has to be taken seriously.

  • 13:47:14

    FEARSThere is some take, Kojo, of some concern that the reduction in the Atlantic fishery will lead to an uptick in fishing in the Gulf fishery where Omega Protein operates off Louisiana, off Mississippi, and off Texas, I think, and maybe Chris and Ben can speak to that better than I can. But menhaden just aren't in the Atlantic, they're also in the Gulf.

  • 13:47:43

    NNAMDIIs there likely to be an uptick in fishing in the Gulf, Ben?

  • 13:47:47

    LANDRYNo, not at all. That's completely unfounded. We have three -- Omega Protein operates three menhaden facilities much like the Reedville facility. There's another competitor company in Louisiana. So there's four plants. I don't see any expansion of boats or effort in the Gulf, so, you know, I wouldn't put too much concern in that.

  • 13:48:10

    NNAMDIAllow me to go to the telephones. Here is John in Cape Cod, Mass. John, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:48:17

    JOHNHi. Thanks for having me on. Yeah. I would just like to chime in a little bit with what Chris was saying before. You know, out on our end of Cape Cod, Menhaden have, you know, virtually disappeared recently. We're kind of on the extreme edge of the menhaden's range, and all of our summertime, you know, businesses out here kind of depend on them. Charter boats, lobster boats, recreational fishing, whale watching, and, you know, menhaden are the fish that sort of drive those businesses.

  • 13:48:48

    JOHNAnd we're glad to hear that there was a 20 percent cut. It didn't go quite as far as we would have liked. A lot of the public seemed to want more of a 50 percent cut or close to it, but it's a good start, and we just want to see menhaden come back up here so that we can have, you know, continued good fishing and a rebound of menhaden in our waters.

  • 13:49:11

    NNAMDIWhat would you say if -- well, you can say something to John, Ben Landry. What would you say to -- what would you like to say to John?

  • 13:49:20

    LANDRYWell, I would, you know, certainly disagree that, you know, cuts like -- that were much larger than 20 that were being discussed, 25, 30, or 50 percent, and those cuts were, you know, kind of an extreme, you know. Fifty percent cuts considering we don't know what the population looks like, and there's not been an accurate kind of a count of the menhaden population since 2008.

  • 13:49:50

    NNAMDIOkay. Well, let me as Chris Moore ...

  • 13:49:51

    LANDRYThat's an entire...

  • 13:49:53

    NNAMDILet me ask Chris Moore, what is your understanding of what the population looks like. What evidence of overfishing are you seeing in and around the Bay, and how do you expect these limits will have an effect on the population?

  • 13:50:05

    MOORESure. Well, when looking at menhaden populations, we tend to look at the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission as really the unbiased arbiter of menhaden science and what's going out there, the population, not only here in Chesapeake Bay, but along the entire Atlantic coast. And the last -- as Ben referred to, the last peer reviewed stock assessment that was done back in 2010, and that stock assessment passed peer review, showed that menhaden, the population, was done about 88 percent from highs back in the early 1980s.

  • 13:50:40

    MOOREWe were near -- at or near the lowest population of menhaden we've actually ever seen going back to data to 1955. In addition, that population assessment showed that recruitment, which is the number of small menhaden entering the population each year has been low since about 1990. So we haven't had nice healthy numbers of menhaden recruiting in the population for over 20 years, and all of those are really warning signs that the population at this point is not as healthy as it should be, and that we needed to take management action in order to try to turn this around and successfully restore the species like we've done with other species such as striped bass, like we started with blue crabs, and others, in order to have both a healthy population of menhaden in order to be able to harvest those menhaden, but also to make sure that they continue...

  • 13:51:36

    NNAMDII think...

  • 13:51:37

    MOORE...to maintain their (word?) role.

  • 13:51:39

    NNAMDIJohn, thank you very much for your call. I think Somerville in Reedville, Va. would like to call into question the objectivity of the information. Somverville, you're on the air. Go ahead, please.

  • 13:51:51

    SOMERVILLEThank you. I would like your guests to discuss the methods of assessing the state of the fish population. I have heard that there is great uncertainty there, even among scientists -- registered scientists that the figures and the percentages that Mr. Moore quotes with such certainty are perhaps not that certain. Thank you.

  • 13:52:20

    NNAMDII have also heard this. I'll start with Darryl Fears, however. The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, Chris Moore said, is considered the objective arbiter in all of this. But obviously there are some people who disagree.

  • 13:52:36

    FEARSYeah. Mostly there are people in Reedville in Virginia disagree with the Commission, but the science is -- it gets very difficult to pin down, and so everyone relies on the Commission and its sources for that count. But I think that Chris can speak to this much better than I can.

  • 13:53:00

    NNAMDIChris Moore, some say that the science is unassailable, others question it.

  • 13:53:06

    MOOREWell, I think with any scientific-type issue such as this, there are differing viewpoints, and admittedly, there were some questions thrown into this, the update stock assessment that was due to come out this summer, 2012, which is not as a robust stock assessment as the previous stock assessment that was released in 2010. That stock assessment showed that there was a -- what we call a retrospective pattern, and retrospective patterns can either show a little too much -- they'll show, you know, more fish than are actually out there, or a lower population or vice versa, dependent upon what's actually happening.

  • 13:53:45

    MOOREAnd so they decided not to use the 2012 stock assessment as a new guidance document to move forward on in managing the menhaden population. So what they did is they fell back to the 2010 stock assessment. That stock assessment is developed by a group of fishery scientists along the entire Atlantic coast, and then once they finish that stock assessment, it goes out to a group of peer reviewers, which again, are fishery scientists, stock assessment scientists from all over the U.S., sometimes from all over the world, and they review that through a peer review process, and that stock assessment passed peer review. So we feel like that's a...

  • 13:54:25


  • 13:54:25

    MOORE...very robust...

  • 13:54:27


  • 13:54:27

    MOORE...document to manage the menhaden in the future.

  • 13:54:30


  • 13:54:30

    MOOREJust one other thing about the current stock assessment, one of the things that ASMFC has always said is that when we have retrospective patterns in our fisheries management, one of the best things to do is to employ caution in your management scenario, and reduce quotas to ensure that we're not doing something we shouldn't in terms of overharvesting the population while we get better scientific information, and I think that's exactly what you saw ASMFC do.

  • 13:54:57

    NNAMDIBen Landry, what is the alternative scientific information that Omega Protein has on stock assessment?

  • 13:55:04

    LANDRYWell, and I want to be clear, I'm not contesting what the ASMFC has said. I do think that if you ask those individual commissioners, they really don't have a good understanding. The last snapshot of the population was taken in 2008. Menhaden are a short-lived species. That means an entire generation of the population has not been counted through the stock assessment process.

  • 13:55:31

    LANDRYSome members of the scientific team at ASMFC say the population is at the same point it was 30 and 40 and 50 years ago. So, you know, certainly the 20 percent cut is responding to a very precautionary step to ensure that the population is protected, and we see that happening. One thing that's important to point out is what the peer reviewers from the earlier assessment identified as a kind of a dome-shaped selectivity curve which essentially means that older fish in the north, that New England range, weren't being accounted or won't be assessed into the population. So that's something that we really look forward to, you know...

  • 13:56:18


  • 13:56:18

    LANDRY...seeing what the next assessment in 2014 shows, because we think the population is actually expanding.

  • 13:56:23

    NNAMDISorry to interrupt, but we have limited time here. What's the next step that we can expect in this process, Darryl Fears?

  • 13:56:32

    FEARSI think that there will be public hearings.

  • 13:56:40

    NNAMDIIn the General Assembly?

  • 13:56:42

    FEARSIn the General Assembly. You know, I don't know how Virginia is going to approach this -- approach this right now. I don't know how that vote's going to go. I haven't had a lot of information there.

  • 13:56:51

    NNAMDIChris, we've talked about concerns regarding the overall health of the Bay many times. Is overfishing the only threat to the menhaden population in the Bay, or are there other concerns you're working on as well?

  • 13:57:01

    MOOREWell, like all of our other Bay species, you're exactly right. Water quality in Chesapeake Bay needs to be improved, and that will basically give menhaden a better environment to flourish in the future, and hopefully, along with managing the population from a fishing standpoint more appropriately will give us a healthier menhaden population, not only in Chesapeake Bay but coast wide as well.

  • 13:57:24

    NNAMDIAnd I'm afraid that's about all the time we have. Chris Moore is a senior scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation. Chris, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:57:32

    MOOREThank you for having me.

  • 13:57:33

    NNAMDIBen Landry is director of public affairs with Omega Protein, Incorporated, which owns a menhaden processing plant in the Virginia town of Reedville. Ben Landry, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:57:43

    LANDRYThanks, Kojo.

  • 13:57:44

    NNAMDIAnd Darryl Fears is a reporter with the Washington Post where he currently covers the environment, focusing on the Chesapeake Bay, and issues affecting wildlife. Darryl, thank you for joining us.

  • 13:57:52


  • 13:57:53

    NNAMDI"The Kojo Nnamdi Show" is produced by Brendan Sweeney, Michael Martinez, Ingalisa Schrobsdorff, Tayla Burney, Kathy Goldgeier, and Elizabeth Weinstein with help from Stephannie Stokes and Jessica Guzman and Ryan Mixson. The engineer today is Tobey Schreiner. Natalie Yuravlivker is on the phones. Thank you all for listening. I'm Kojo Nnamdi.

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