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Virginia Fish Oil Industry

March 4, 2010
by Tisha Thompson

REEDVILLE, Va. - In tiny Reedville, Virginia, there's a bank, a crab shack and a smokestack that smells kind of fishy. The smokestack is the centerpiece of Omega Protein's fish processing plant.

"Sometimes the only thing people know about us is the stack," says Andy Hall, the assistant general manager of Omega Protein. "This is where the smoke and the odor that makes Reedville Reedville has always emitted from."

According to the federal government, the company catches hauls in more than 350 million pounds of fish a year here, making Reedville the second largest fish landing in the country. Second only to Alaska.

"We can move, right now, about 250,000 [fish] an hour," Hall says.

Employing about 300 people, he says the company is the only place left in this rural section of Virginia where you can still make a decent living.

"Its something everyone here has grown up doing," says Monty Deihl, a fourth-generation fisherman and the plant's general manager. "It's what they love to do and it's so important to the community."

Originally founded by former president George H. W. Bush as a petroleum company in the 1960s, Omega Protein was transformed into a fish oil business by the owner of the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, Malcolm Glazer. Glazer eventually sold his stake in the publicly-traded company in 2007.

The company now spends nearly a million dollars a year on lobbyists pushing Congress to promote, "public awareness of health benefits of Omega-3 fatty acids."

But instead of pills, the company's financial filings show most of the fish caught in the Chesapeake Bay end up industrial products like fertilizers, insecticides, even pet food. About half of which is sold overseas in places like Europe and China.

"This is completely irrational to be taking the fish not to eat, but to grind it up and boil it and turn it into various industrial commodities, none of which is essential," says Bruce Franklin.

Franklin is the author of "The Most Important Fish in the Sea," a book about the type of fish Omega Protein catches, called meohaden. He says Omega Protein can undercut its competitors because menhaden are so cheap to catch.

But with a growing number of critics claiming the company is wiping out the Chesapeake Bay's menhaden population, Franklin says the company has contributed big bucks to Virginia lawmakers.

Campaign finance records show Omega Protein donated about $140,000 to more than six dozen Virginia lawmakers over the last five years.

Deihl says the company partakes in the political process just like anyone else and hires lobbyists the same way the environmentalist groups who criticize the company do. The company has made multiple donations to Governor Bob McDonnell, including a recent $25,000 check for his gubernatorial campaign.

A spokesman for the Governor says, ""Omega Protein is one of the largest employers on the Northern Neck, providing good jobs for citizens in the region while balancing the need to protect the Chesapeake Bay, a Virginia treasure. The Governor's position is based solely on the policy issue at hand."

But Greenpeace's John Hocevar says, "That's a lot of money for a state legislator anywhere."

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