Myctophids: Small Fish and a Colossal Action to Protect Them | Oceana USA
Photo credit: Ben Nieves

When it comes to the ocean’s small, silvery, schooling fish we are most familiar with coastal species like sardines, anchovy and herring. However, other lesser known fish—many with fairly funny sounding names—make up the most abundant groups of fish in the ocean. Possibly the most abundant and widespread of all are “myctophids”.  

Also called lanternfish, individual myctophids weigh in at only two to six grams and average less than six inches in length. Yet combined there are 246 myctophid species worldwide, which make up roughly 65 percent of all deep-sea fish biomass (weight) in the oceans. The estimated global biomass of myctophids is several times greater than the entire world fisheries catch.

With new federal regulations issued today, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries) is prohibiting commercial fisheries for myctophids and other small forage fish in the Pacific Ocean off the U.S. West Coast.

These small fish are critical to supporting a healthy ocean food web. While myctophids eat zooplankton, they in turn feed countless ocean animals including salmon, halibut, tuna, dolphins, and whales. During the day these fish hang out in the deep between 1,000 and 4,000 feet below the surface. At night, however, they migrate up to just 30 feet below the ocean surface.  Through these daily vertical migrations, myctophids actually act as a massive biological pump, rapidly transporting carbon from the surface to deep-sea ecosystems. So, not only are they important as prey for ocean wildlife, they are a major part of the global carbon cycle.

If you are not sold yet, did you know they also glow in the dark?  Their organs glow or “bioluminess” in the sun-deprived deep ocean. When escaping predators, they flash a blinding light as a distraction to escape.

Today's rule by NOAA Fisheries recognizes the “importance of these forage fish” to managed fish species and to a healthy California Current ocean ecosystem. This action prohibits directed commercial fishing for seven groups of forage fish in federal ocean waters off the U.S. West Coast. What is more, it recognizes the threat that new fisheries would pose to dependent marine life plus existing commercial and recreational fisheries. While myctophids and other forage fish protected in this rule are not currently the target of commercial fishing in this region, the increasing global demand for small fish to produce aquaculture and agriculture feed for farmed tuna, pigs, and chickens risks rapid development of new fisheries for high volume, low value feed.

As a result of a significant campaign effort led by Oceana and our partners, the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously in March 2015 to prohibit new directed commercial fisheries for these seven forage fish groups. In total, they make up hundreds of individual species. The forage fish groups protected are round and thread herring, mesopelagic fishes (which includes myctophids), Pacific sand lance, Pacific saury, Silversides, Osmerid smelts, and pelagic squids (other than Humboldt squid).

This action shifts the burden of proof in favor of a healthy ocean, where one has to prove that a commercial fishing activity will not cause harm before it is allowed. Combined with previous measures to protect krill, today’s action safeguards roughly 70 percent of all forage fish by weight in the California Current ecosystem from directed commercial fisheries.

Tens of thousands of you supported these protections over the years. In fact, 91,966 individuals asked NOAA Fisheries just last month to make these protections final. Now they are.

For the ocean, we thank you!

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