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April 13, 2014

A Big Day for Little Fish

Yesterday was a big day for little fish. The Pacific Fishery Management Council, the federal body responsible for managing most U.S. West Coast fisheries, took another step toward implementing comprehensive measures to protect the ocean food web. In its first “ecosystem initiative,” the Council is working to prohibit new directed commercial fishing on currently unmanaged, unfished forage species in the federal Pacific Ocean waters (3 to 200 miles) offshore Washington, Oregon, and California. Yesterday, the Council gave its initial approval of a policy pathway that will protect forage species belonging to 17 different taxonomic families, including round and thread herrings, mesopelagic fishes, Pacific sand lance, Pacific saury, silversides, osmerid smelts, and pelagic squids.

You have seen a sardine, you may have tasted calamari, but you likely have not heard of lantern fish, Pacific saury, or neon flying squid. These fish all belong to the same category of small and critically important fish and invertebrates called forage species. Since 2009, Oceana has been calling on the Pacific Fishery Management Council to protect theses currently “unmanaged” forage species because of their important role as prey in the marine ecosystem food web. And soon, these little fish — with some of the most unusual names — may be getting the recognition and protections they deserve.

Forage species are a critical link in the marine food web as they feed everything else larger than them. Not just dolphins, whales, and seabirds, but commercially and recreationally important fish as well. Forage species, via their role as prey for other fish and wildlife, also contribute to jobs and revenue on the West Coast. These small fish indirectly support ocean-based tourism and recreation sectors that provide 400,000 jobs and $18 billion in revenue to California, Oregon, and Washington, according to the National Ocean Economics Program. When forage fish decline, so do the predators dependent on them like rockfish, salmon, and halibut.

Commercial demand for forage fish is increasing as aquaculture and agriculture industries expand worldwide. Most forage fish catch is not consumed directly as human food, but is sold in global markets as ground meal for farmed fish, chickens, and pigs. Expansion of aquaculture and agriculture can increase pressure on wild forage fish populations, and forage fish that are not currently fished may soon become commercially targeted.

Rather than wait for new fisheries to start up on ecologically important forage species, and rush in reactively with conservation and management measures, the Pacific Fishery Management Council is being proactive by first protecting these important forage species before the damage has been done. In its stated purpose for this proposed action, the Council intends to prohibit new directed commercial fisheries on these forage species “until the Council has had an adequate opportunity to both assess the scientific information relating to any proposed directed fishery and consider potential impacts to existing fisheries, fishing communities, and the greater ecosystem.” This forward thinking management prioritizes ocean conservation and existing uses over prospective financial gain.

This Council set a precedent back in 2006 by prohibiting directed fishing for krill throughout the entire U.S. West Coast Exclusive Economic Zone. Krill are a group of small shrimp-like crustaceans that are a major food source for whales, seabirds and fish. A single blue whale, for example, can eat over two tons of krill per day.

The Council will meet again in September to discuss this ecosystem initiative further and it plans to potentially take final action in November 2014. Oceana will be there to help make sure this happens. After all, it is common sense to proactively protect the little fish responsible for fueling the entire marine food web.