This first effort was a way for the company to establish a benchmark, said Ben Landry, director of public affairs. Omega Protein as a company has suffered some setbacks in recent years in trying to tell this sort of message, whether it is because of having to pay a $7.5 million in fines in 2013 levied by the EPA for illegal wastewater dumping in Virginia, public tussles with fisheries watchdog groups like the Pew Charitable Trust or being fined by OSHA in connection with the death of a worker at the company’s Moss Point, MS plant in 2012.
“This is our inaugural look into what we are doing. We are letting the public inside Omega Protein and letting people know what we are up to. We think it is important for the public and the stakeholders to understand that we are a responsible company,” Landry told NutraIngredients-USA.
Pressure on fishing sustainability
Omega Protein is first and foremost a fishing company. As such, it has come under the same sort of scrutiny as all fish harvesters have in recent decades as information (some of it conflicting) accrues about the worsening state of oceanic ecosystems. The company operates fishing fleets in the Gulf of Mexico and out of Virginia, and the Eastern Seaboard offers up the poster child for poor fisheries management in the collapse of the cod fishery in the Northwestern Atlantic Ocean. That fishery, despite years of moratoriums, has yet to recover to anything close to its precollapse level.
Omega Protein catches menhaden, a small forage fish, which it turns into fish meal and fish oil for various markets. Its fishing operations are certified by the Friend of the Sea organization. A small portion of the oil is turned into high omega-3 oils for the human nutrition market. While the company is the largest fish oil processor based in the United States, the amount of the omega-3 oil it supplies to the market is only about 1% of the world total, according to GOED.
Landry said Omega Protein has been operating as a fishing company for more than 100 years and has been cooperating with fisheries managers since about 1955, so he said recent public disagreements the company has had with the management of certain fisheries should be taken in that context. The company catches most of its menhaden in the Gulf of Mexico. Its fishing quota in and around Chesapeake Bay was cut by 20% in 2012, a move that the company disagreed with because it thought it was based on faulty data.
“The reporting has become much more complex over the years. In order to responsibly harvest menhaden you have to conduct stock assessments. Fisheries managers have a difficult job on the East Coast particularly. The stock assessment in 2012 produced unreliable results, but the managers went ahead with the 20% reduction. There is a stock assessment that is finishing up right now and will be sent to peer review and should be out by the end of December,” Landry said.
“There was a stock assessement in 2013 that stated the Gulf population was not overfished. Fisheries managers are quite confident that we were not overfished down there,” he said.
Report reflects diversified company
Landry said that the menhaden fisheries, like others around the world, are subject to periodic boom and bust cycles in the abundance of fish. It is one of the reasons the company has made signifcant moves to diversify its operations in recent years by making acquisitons in the human nutrition markets including Cyvex Nutrition and Wisconsin Specialty Protein, a whey producer. That is also why the corporate report talks about aspects of the company’s sustainability story beyond just its cooperation with fisheries managers.
“We want to look for opportunities to reduce our ecological footprint,” Landry said. “The report highlights the way in which we are reducing groundwater usage at our fish processing plants. We capture the water that is in the fish themselves and have saved 18,000 gallons a year.
“At our Wisconsin plant, we have switched to renewable diesel oil, as opposed to burning high sulfur, high emissions diesel. At that location we don’t have access to high quality, low cost, low emissions natural gas so we have to be forward thinking in how we get our fuel,” he said.
The report also highlight Omega Proteins community connections. The company funds research grants at univeristies including Virginia Tech, Texas Tech and Tufts and grants scholarships to college students as well. In addition, the company contributes to charitable organizations such as No Kid Hungry and Vitamin Angels, and participates in local ecosystem rehabilitation projects.