Omega Protein employs 250 people in Reedville, VA, mostly factory workers and fishermen who net Atlantic menhaden, taking whole schools of the small, oily fish from the ocean and grinding them into meal, oil and solubles.
Some of those jobs are in peril, but they shouldn't be.
Omega Protein warned last year that catch limits on menhaden — a vital food source for a range of species — could result in lost jobs. The company has long touted the importance of the menhaden industry to the tiny coastal town of Reedville, where hundreds of people depend on the company for work.
Omega Protein cares so much about its storied history of menhaden fishing in Reedville that it spent $50,000 in 2010 to "save the stack" — a crumbling monument to a long-defunct fish processing plant that "lends the town an air of majesty," Omega Protein said.
That same spirit of preservation will not be extended to its employees this fishing season, though.
In December, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission imposed a limit on Omega's operations for the first time, capping the total annual commercial catch at 170,800 metric tons, about 80 percent of the average harvest from the last three years.
The limit was considered necessary because menhaden stocks have plummeted in recent decades, at least in part because of overfishing. A bill to ensure that Virginia complies with ASMFC regulations made its way through the legislature and was signed into law by Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell. Now that the restrictions are official, Omega is ready to make good on its threat to cut jobs.
Omega spokesman Ben Landry has said the cap on the menhaden fishery will force the company to decommission one of its fishing vessels and fire between 25 and 37 workers. "The more the fishery has to cut back, the more footing you lose on really continuing to be a sustainable business there," he told the Newport News Daily Press.
Omega Protein wants the public to believe that it is a victim of an overreaching government. But a closer look at the facts show that the real victims are the company's employees.
If Omega executives truly wished to protect their employees, they could shift and reassign workers to save jobs. Omega Protein has done this before. Ken Pinkard, an Omega worker I interviewed in December, said the company decommissioned a boat last year yet avoided firing anyone.
"A year ago, we had nine boats and we went to eight this past season," Pinkard said. "We incorporated everybody, spread them out with an extra person on each boat. That was a show of good faith on the company's part to limit hardship. Nobody was laid off."
If positions are no longer available in Virginia, Omega Protein could give its employees the option of relocating to the company's three factories in the Gulf of Mexico — something else Omega Protein has done before. In 1997, Zapata Protein (soon to become Omega Protein) purchased its last remaining competitor in Reedville, Ampro Fisheries, for $14.5 million in cash. The company fired all 160 workers at the Ampro plant, but offered many of them positions in Louisiana and Mississippi.
But it's worth noting that preserving jobs for U.S. workers at its Gulf plants has not been a priority for Omega Protein in the past.
A December 2012 investigation by the Public Trust Project found that Omega Protein hired 695 foreign workers in 2006–07 to work at its Gulf plants, at a time when Mississippi joblessness was at 6.9 percent and Louisiana's topped 3.7 percent. Omega Protein applied for foreign worker visas again in 2011 and 2012, according to the company's SEC filings, and has spent money lobbying Congress to expand the foreign visa program. Documents filed with the Department of Homeland Security show that Omega Protein planned to pay its foreign workers less than their U.S. counterparts, likely to cut costs.
Still, relocation to the Gulf might not be in the best interest of Omega Protein's Virginian workers. The most humane option would be for the company to show some loyalty to the Reedville community, which has turned out in significant numbers at public hearings to testify about the social and economic value of the fishery to the region.
Here's one idea. In 2012, Omega executives received a total of $900,000 in bonuses, on top of $15 million in salaries over the last two years. In comparison, Pinkard, an employee on Omega Protein's Virginia-based boats, said at one public meeting that he makes about $35,000 per year. If Omega reduced bonuses to its top executives, or eliminated them entirely, the company could save Pinkard's job, and secure the livelihoods of many of his colleagues.
Omega Protein has been profiting from menhaden — a public resource owned by U.S. citizens — for more than 100 years. In the 62 years between 1950 and 2012, the industry harvested more than 47 billion pounds of menhaden from the Atlantic Ocean, according to federal data. And business has been good: In 2012, the company saw its highest ever third quarter revenues — nearly $78 million.
In return, the least Omega Protein can do is protect 25 jobs while the ASMFC assesses whether harvest cuts will rebuild the depleted menhaden. It's time for Omega Protein to show that it is a good corporate citizen — and prove it deserves to be fishing menhaden in the future.