The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is a private labeling enterprise that reviews fisheries worldwide for certification to their standards. Companies seeking certification for their fisheries pay a fee to the MSC for review and certification. Fisheries are rarely entirely denied the label, though some fisheries have been given conditional certification if they make certain changes or improvements. Whether the label does or does not actually represent “sustainability” in fishing, the MSC label is one of the few that consumers often recognize on seafood, in large part due to intensive outreach and marketing. Name recognition may encourage shoppers to buy MSC labeled seafood.
Over recent months, MSC has been reviewing the Gulf menhaden fishery at the request of Omega Protein. Most people are not familiar with menhaden, (aka “pogies”in the Gulf). This is because menhaden is mostly a bait and reduction fishery – meaning menhaden aren’t eaten directly by people as an entree – most are “reduced” to fish oil and fishmeal for use in pet feed, cosmetics and pharmaceuticals (like fish oil pills) among other products and some is used directly as bait for catching other fish. Menhaden is the second largest fishery by weight in the United States, with over 1 billion pounds caught annually from the Gulf of Mexico.
Menhaden have been called the “most important fish in the sea”. These small fish are critical to the ecosystem – many larger fish in the Gulf rely on them as food, as do marine mammals like dolphins, and sea birds. They also are filter feeders so they can help maintain the quality of Gulf waters.
Menhaden are caught using spotter planes and encircling nets – so anything near the school of fish – like dolphins, sharks, and other fish, might get caught and killed too when the entire school of fish is scooped up and pulled in. The unintentional catch of other marine life is called “bycatch”. The menhaden industry itself acknowledges about a 1-3 percent “bycatch” rate, which sounds like not much, but considering over a billion pounds of menhaden are pulled from the Gulf each year, that means about 1-3 million pounds of bycatch annually, along with it.
The menhaden industry in the Gulf is just two companies – so most information is considered “confidential” – people cannot get enough good information about the fishery to know whether it could be considered sustainable or not. It is therefore difficult to support any MSC certification when there is little current publicly available information to confirm it.
Also concerning, is that there is no catch cap on Gulf menhaden except in Texas state waters. So companies can catch as much of these fish as they are able. Gulf menhaden are caught mainly in Louisiana waters and the rest in Mississippi, Alabama and Texas. Menhaden are also caught in the Atlantic, where there is an annual limit. This means that companies could reach the annual catch cap in the Atlantic, and then go fish more in the Gulf.
With a current push for more aquaculture in the U.S., there may be a rise in need for menhaden to feed the farmed fish. Also, getting an MSC certification might increase sales of menhaden, and products with menhaden in them, to those who would think it is more sustainable than other sources once it has the MSC label.
We are now waiting for MSC’s decision on Gulf menhaden.