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Omega Protein: New York menhaden law a ‘feel good’ for environmentalists

Omega Protein says it won't be hurt by a new law that blocks it from fishing for menhaden in New York state waters in order to preserve the forage fish for whales and other wildlife because it never goes there.

Rather, it's “feel-good legislation for the environmental community, but it will have zero impact on the company’s operations”, commented Ben Landry, director of public affairs for the Houston, Texas-based division of Canada's Cooke, when called by Undercurrent News Tuesday for a response.

The legislation passed unanimously, 61-0, by New York's Senate in February (companion bills S. 2317 and A. 2571) went into effect immediately upon being signed by governor Andrew Cuomo on Thursday. The new law, which was sponsored by Democratic senator Todd Kaminsky and assembly member Steve Englebright, prohibits the taking of menhaden with the use of purse seine nets within three miles of the state’s coast.

Because menhaden are sensitive to oxygen levels in the water and can die off by the thousands when large schools become too confined in one area during hot weather, the law allows the state’s Department of Environmental Conservation (DEC) to issue a temporary order to allow purse seiners to reduce the population.

Credit: NOAA photo library

Menhaden. Credit: NOAA photo library

Menhaden, also known as "pogies" and "bunkers", is a highly regarded forage fish upon which many other species of fish, mammals and birds, including striped bass, whales, dolphins, bluefish and coastal sharks, have all depended for sustenance. It’s also an important commercial baitfish, harvested for production of fish oil, fertilizer, and fishmeal.

"This critical new law will help us further protect a vital fishery that supports species important to our sportfishing economy, as well as the majestic whales and other marine life that are once again returning to our state's coastal waters," said Cuomo, who’s been the Democratic governor of the state since 2011, in a press release.

Menhaden were historically abundant in New York's waters until overfishing reduced their populations significantly, said the press release. Menhaden have slowly been coming back off the coast of New York thanks to actions taken by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission in 2012. Also, the DEC increased harvest reporting requirements in 2011 to better track New York bait landings.

The battle between New York and the US’s largest harvester of menhaden has been brewing since at least September when the New York Times and multiple other media published stories about two Omega Protein vessels from Reedville, Virginia, removing nearly 4 million pounds of menhaden. The harvests happened in locations visible from Sandy Hook, a small barrier spit in bordering New Jersey that encloses the southern entrance of New York City and protects it from the open waters of the Atlantic Ocean, and also by passengers on a cruise ship.

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