A fishy tale of monopoly power

There’s a fascinating article in The Washington Monthly about a kind of fish, the menhaden. The stocks are in precipitous decline, and as the fish is at the bottom of the food chain, other fish and birds are dying as a result, and the coastal waters near the shore are becoming increasingly covered in algae. Author Alison Fairbrother writes:

“Pound for pound, more menhaden are pulled from the sea than any other fish species in the continental United States, and 80 percent of the menhaden netted from the Atlantic are the property of a single company.”

The fish are used for feed pellets, cosmetics, fertilizer and many other products, including now Omega-3 fish oil for foods, so they are factory-fished. The business is more or less a monopoly – the company fishing menhaden out of the Atlantic is Omega Protein, coincidentally a significant donor to political campaigns.

The menhaden story isn’t new to me. In 2007 I read a marvellous and terrifying book about their decline, [amazon_link id=”1597265071″ target=”_blank” ]The Most Important Fish in the Sea[/amazon_link] by H Bruce Franklin.

 [amazon_image id=”1597265071″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]The Most Important Fish in the Sea: Menhaden and America[/amazon_image]

Omega Protein is a renamed and merged corporate descendant of Zapata Oil, founded in 1952 by the future President George H.W. Bush – conspiracy theory material about it abounds. Omega Protein’s website mentions just a little about conservation of the fish stocks in its sustainability section. It claims:

“STATEMENT: Both the Atlantic and Gulf menhaden populations are overfished.
FICTON: Though this statement is often heard, it is not true. Both the Atlantic and Gulf menhaden are subject to regular stock assessments (a method to estimate the status of the population) conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The most recent assessments (2010 for the Atlantic and 2006 for the Gulf) show that menhaden are not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.”

The Washington Monthly article is about exactly these official stock assessments – it’s well worth a read, as is the book.

Just like the banking industry, the story is one of how monopoly always subverts effective regulation (market power always turns into political political power); competition is important for multiple reasons. It’s also always illuminating to see how complex the modern economy is. One of the zillions of components of everyday products turns out to be an unimpressive fish you’ve never heard of.

Most importantly, with menhaden, as with other resources, having accurate data on the stocks is essential to make sure we are using enough – but not too much – to improve our own prosperity and leave at least as much for the next generation.

You probably haven't heard of the menhaden