Friday, April 25, 2014

Corporate greed threatens the bounty of the sea

Omega 3 additives have become common in everything from eggs to peanut butter. Omega 3 is recommended for its beneficial effects against a wide variety of ailments including heart attacks, stroke, and colon cancer.

Omega 3 is a good thing. But we need to be concerned about where all this omega 3 is coming from. Mechanized harvesting of fish is not a good thing. Overfishing can have disastrous results in the areas where it is practiced.

Take the case of Omega Protein, a company that harvests 230 million pounds of menhaden from Chesapeake Bay every year and turns them into fish meal and omega 3 supplements. The menhaden are mostly harvested in Virginia and North Carolina by a fishing method called purse seining. Purse seining is illegal nearly everywhere because it captures whole schools of fish, wiping out entire populations wherever it is practiced. Purse seining is illegal along the Atlantic coast--except in Virginia and North Carolina.

One man who made millions from polluting Chesapeake Bay was billionaire Malcolm Glazer, who used to own Omega Protein. Like many other one-per-centers, Glazer showed no compunction about using purse seining, a process banned nearly everywhere, to rake in the millions.

One result of overfishing menhaden in Virginia has been the creation of a vast dead zone in Chesapeake Bay, once the most productive source of oysters in the world. A dead zone occurs where there is not enough oxygen in the water to support any fish at all. Menhaden are a keystone species. Their existence affects a broad range of other species and the health of the entire Atlantic. They provide a food source for large game fish, like the striped bass and the Atlantic cod. They also provide a food source for large sea birds like the osprey and the loon. As the numbers of menhaden have fallen, so have the numbers of the species that rely on them. Additionally, the food they used to eat, microscopic algae, have multiplied astronomically. Hence, the dead zone grows larger every year.

Once oysters kept Chesapeake bay waters clear. Oysters are filter-feeders that remove oxygen-consuming algae from the water, but the oysters are nearly gone now. Menhaden also consume large quantities of algae that remove the oxygen from water. They are an essential food source for striped bass, beloved by sport fishermen. They also improve water quality by removing algae. But Omega Protein, a company based in Texas, has almost completely eliminated them from Chesapeake Bay.

We can restore our estuaries and coastal waters to abundant production. Or we can let billionaires, like Malcolm Glazer, steal our fish and bankrupt the ecology. The choice is ours.

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