A school of menhaden, which are harvested in the Chesapeake Bay. (Creative Commons via Pixabay)

Virginia’s most politically contentious fishery — Omega Protein’s Reedville menhaden reduction operation — is up for a Marine Stewardship Council certification, which recognizes sustainable fishing practices, but an environmental group argues that the recommendation is misplaced.

Omega Protein harvests thousands of tons a year of menhaden in the Chesapeake Bay, turning them into oil and meal for a variety of uses, from dietary supplements to pet food. Menhaden are known as forage fish and their main role is to be eaten — they’re low on the food chain and feed everything from striped bass and flounder to whales and dolphins.

The company claims that the population of menhaden in the bay is healthy and sustainable. However, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation, which, along with some sport fishermen and other groups, favors setting stricter catch limits for the politically influential company as a precaution, arguing that there are low observed levels of young menhaden in the bay.

SAI Global, an Ireland-based analyst that assesses companies for the Marine Stewardship Council, recommended Omega Protein for certification and the assessment is currently open for public comment. The certification, Omega says, proves that its current harvest levels are sustainable.

“The most rigorous certification in terms of sustainability in the world has said: This is a healthy, sustainable fishery,” said Ben Landry, Omega’s director of public affairs. “We’re certainly pleased by the initial recommendation.”

But the Chesapeake Bay Foundation questions whether Omega should qualify, pointing to the fact that the Marine Stewardship Council’s third core principle requires effective management, “that respects local, national and international laws and standards.”

The certification is not final. The public comment period ends Jan. 4, and the assessment team at SAI Global must respond to each of the responses and include them in a final report. A representative with SAI said the company cannot comment as the process is ongoing.

“We don’t see how you can certify a fishery that’s not in compliance with the management plan, especially when it’s done at the behest of the company,” said Chris Moore, senior regional ecosystem scientist with the Chesapeake Bay Foundation.

However, Virginia has not yet been found out of compliance with the new catch limits.

Last year, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which regulates 27 nearshore species for Atlantic coastal states, cut Virginia’s share of the menhaden quota as well as lowered the tonnage Omega can pull from the bay.

During the last General Assembly session, lawmakers batted down a bill that would have brought Virginia into compliance with those rules. Omega Protein, which has donated more $450,000 to political campaigns in Virginia over the last 10 years, strongly opposed the bill.

The commission reduced the catch limit in the bay as a recognition of “the importance of the Chesapeake Bay as nursery grounds for many species,” according to the commission’s website.

The group is now considering whether or not to find Virginia out of compliance with its rules. It was due to discuss the topic at its August meeting, but postponed the motion until February, “with the understanding that the cap is unlikely to be exceeded in 2018.”

Moore said that cap in the Chesapeake Bay is meant to ensure that there is a healthy population of menhaden, particularly, as the commission noted, because the bay is an important nursery ground for the fish. Omega Protein shouldn’t receive a certification from the Marine Stewardship Council until Virginia comes into compliance, he argued.

In a news release, the Chesapeake Bay Foundation says “Marine Stewardship Council standards are used by seafood lovers to verify if a fishery is well-managed and sustainable, but they risk becoming meaningless if Omega Protein’s menhaden fishery is certified.”

Landry, though, argued that the cap is not based on scientific guidance. Menhaden move in and out of the bay frequently, he said, and the populations along the Atlantic coast are generally considered healthy.

“That’s not fair fishery management, that’s hysteria,” he said. “Accepting non science-based fishery management is not something this company is going to do.”

Menhaden is the only species in Virginia regulated by the General Assembly instead of the Virginia Marine Resources Commission, and that’s the way Omega likes it, Landry said in an interview with the Richmond Times-Dispatch earlier this year, noting that the company prefers “140 sets of eyes” on menhaden.

The new cap for the Chesapeake Bay is 50,000 tons of menhaden, but Omega is not likely to reach that limit this year, according to the commission. The Virginia Marine Resources Commission said in August that landings were falling well under the cap.

The certification assessment points out Omega’s strengths, such as its extensive research and monitoring of Atlantic menhaden stock, and its menhaden-specific conservation and management measures already in place. It does include some conditions that address some of the concerns from the Chesapeake Bay Foundation — though the group argues they don’t go far enough.

They’re focused on requiring that Omega ensures its harvest strategy, “is designed to take into consideration the ecological role of Atlantic menhaden and is responsive to the state of the stock with respect to its role in the U.S. Northwest Atlantic ecosystem.

“Evidence is lacking,” the report continues, that the current harvest strategy takes such factors as the fish’s role in the ecosystem into consideration.

The report additionally called out Omega Protein for not regularly reviewing measures to minimize the fishery’s impact on endangered, threatened and protected species.

“Why put the cart before the horse and actually certify the fishery before they’ve met the first condition that they put in the report?” Moore said, adding that the Marine Stewardship Council, “should be drilling down and doing a better job of really looking at what these local impacts are.”