Nine members of Congress — five Republicans and four Democrats — have urged the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission (ASMFC) to consider corporate-funded research in assessing Atlantic menhaden, a forage fish vital to the Atlantic ecosystem.
In a letter to the ASMFC, the politicians expressed concerns that the agency has not included the “latest information” in its most recent menhaden stock assessment.
The letter refers to information from an aerial survey conducted by University of New England scientist James Sulikowski, who flew in a spotter plane for 50 hours last fall looking for schools of menhaden in what has historically been the fish’s northern range, from Long Island to Portland, Maine.
Sulikowski’s flyover observations were sponsored by Omega Protein, a company that removes a quarter of a billion pounds of menhaden from Atlantic waters each year – the largest industrial harvester of the fish by orders of magnitude. The company has argued that menhaden stock assessments have not adequately accounted for menhaden schools in the north. According to Omega, that might have skewed the results of the most recent assessment, which showed menhaden abundance down 88 percent in the last 25 years and that overfishing had occurred in the majority of the last 50.
The letter suggests that Omega Protein is using a time-tested corporate tactic: If the existing science doesn’t support your bottom line, fund some of your own. And then get Congress to support it. The nine elected signatories seem more comfortable aligning with monied interests than with rigorous, science-based policy making.
The letter, dated April 9th, 2012, calls on the ASMFC to address the work of Dr. Sulikowski and other “independent scientists” in this year’s assessment of the menhaden population.
“If the stock assessment can be improved – and particularly if the model is flawed in important ways – ASMFC and National Marine Fisheries Service should allow the assessment team the full flexibility to make warranted adjustments,” the Congressmen wrote.
Despite pressure for the ASMFC to incorporate Sulikowski’s findings, Sulikowski himself told the Public Trust Project that the data he collected during his three months of flying was just a snapshot, unsuitable for use in an official assessment.
“What we’ve done here was a great first step in better understanding the population of the species, but this has to be replicated for a couple more years….,” Sulikowski said in an interview last year. “With any type of fisheries based research, you need multiple years to make sure that what you are seeing is not an anomaly.”
He added that Omega Protein had not yet committed to further funding.
A long-term survey of the northern range has been urged by notable supporters in recent years. In fact, a 2010 panel of independent peer reviewers recommended better data on menhaden in the north – and here the word “independent” reflects its true meaning: unaffiliated with industry. Sulikowski, on the other hand, received $250,000 from Omega Protein to conduct his study.
Regardless, ASMFC Interstate Fishery Management Plan Coordinator Bob Beale said, “Most likely [the data from Omega Protein’s aerial survey] will be ineligible for use in the [next] assessment.”
Dr. Edward Houde, a biologist with University of Maryland, added that findings from a company-funded aerial survey would have to be “ground-truthed with boats in the water.” (You can read excerpts from both of their interviews here).
This didn’t stop Congressional signatories from calling for research that is preliminary at best to be included in this year’s official stock assessment of Atlantic menhaden.
The Congressmen who signed the letter include Virginia Republican Rob Wittman, who represents Northumberland County, where Omega Protein’s factory is based, as well as Michael Michaud (Maine), Walter Jones (North Carolina), William Keating (Massachusetts), Frank LoBiondo (New Jersey), Steven Palazzo (Mississippi), Chellie Pingree (Maine), Jon Runyan (New Jersey), and Timothy Bishop (New York).
Alison Fairbrother is the director of the Public Trust Project.