Forage Fish Should Stay in the Ocean - Oceana USA
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April 3, 2012

Forage Fish Should Stay in the Ocean

Editor’s Note: This post was co-written by Ben Enticknap and Geoff Shester

Yesterday a task force of thirteen distinguished scientists from around the globe released a new report, “little fish BIG IMPACT” that investigates the science of ocean food webs, the critical role of forage species, and the urgent need for changing fishery management approaches.  In the most comprehensive global analysis of forage fish science and management to date, the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force details how current management is too risky and how it fails to account for the critical role of forage fish as food for marine mammals, seabirds, and commercially important species such as salmon, tuna, cod and rockfish.  This report validates what Oceana has been pushing for in the fishery management arena for years, and provides conclusive scientific justification for major overhauls in how we manage fisheries for forage fish.

Forage fish are small to medium-sized species that include anchovies, herring, and sardines, but also invertebrates like squid and krill.  In the California Current ocean ecosystem (the Northeast Pacific Ocean off California, Oregon and Washington), Oceana has been working for over six years to protect critically important forage species.  Consistent with the findings and recommendations of the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, Oceana has been working to prevent the development of new commercial fisheries for forage fish before they begin, and to move existing fisheries toward a precautionary, ecosystem-based approach that accounts other marine life like whales, seals and seabirds when setting catch levels.  

One of the recommendations of the Task Force is no new fisheries for forage species.  After four years of hard work by Oceana and others, in 2009, the National Marine Fisheries Service prohibited the development of any fisheries for krill off the U.S. West Coast.  Krill are small shrimp-like crustaceans that are a key food for whales, seabirds and many types of fish.  Oceana is now working with regional managers to expand this proactive and precautionary approach to other unmanaged forage fish off the West Coast, like Pacific saury, Pacific sandlance, smelts and others.

For fisheries that are already established, the Task Force offers a blueprint for implementing ecosystem-based thinking into traditional fishery management.  This will prove to be extremely helpful as Oceana has been working to move management from the “conventional” approach to a “precautionary” or ecosystem-based management approach like that described in the Lenfest report.  

Case in point is the Pacific sardine fishery – one of the largest and most iconic fisheries off the West Coast – made famous during the “Cannery Row” era of the 1940s.  The fishery collapsed in the 1950s shortly after its boom. The current understanding of this collapse is that environmental conditions shifted to an unproductive state for sardines, yet the fishing pressure didn’t decrease fast enough.  Had it not been fished so hard during the decline, the sardine population would not have collapsed so fast, it would have recovered sooner, and it would have recovered to a much higher population size than it has been at in recent years.  All the canneries on Cannery Row shut down after the fishery collapsed, and while the fishery has resumed, managers are making the same mistakes all over again.  

The Pacific sardine fishery is now often praised for having precautionary elements like a “cutoff” where fishing stops when the biomass level drops below 150,000 metric tons of sardine.  However, according to the Lenfest report’s recommendation that cutoff should be at least 40% of the estimate of unfished biomass.  The current Pacific sardine cutoff is far below this.   Based on the Lenfest recommendations, the Pacific sardine biomass limit should be roughly 900,000 metric tons, or six times higher than the threshold used under current management.  

A recent article in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that Pacific sardine are again heading for a crash.  But the fishery management response has been all the while to increase harvest rates, and the fishery has been targeting the oldest, largest and most fecund fish.  The authors identified a critical biomass level of 750,000 metric tons simply to avoid sardine collapse, which is five times the current threshold.  The crux of these finding is that fishing has the greatest impact when forage fish enter a period of natural decline, arguably where we are now with Pacific sardine.  Another study published in the journal Science looked at the impacts of fishing forage species on seabird predators, and concluded that forage fish populations should be kept above one third of historic maximum levels, which would mean a Pacific sardine cutoff of well over one million metric tons.  The consistent message coming from multiple directions is that the Pacific sardine cutoff is far too low and the so-called “conservative” management now in place is far too aggressive.

Current management on the West Coast has failed to take a hard look at the ecological implications of major commercial fisheries that target forage fish, managers have failed to use the best available science, failed to specify legally required thresholds like overfished limits, and failed to specify and account for ecological and economic needs.  In fact, the Task Force estimated that the value of forage species left in the water to other commercial fisheries is far greater than their value as commercial landings.  That doesn’t even include the value to recreational fisheries or eco-tourism operations, which are likely much greater.  

The lack of an ecosystem-based management approach and the lack of legally required criteria, like overfished thresholds for species like anchovy and squid, compelled Oceana to file a lawsuit against the National Marine Fisheries Service challenging their approval of the fishery management plan that governs fisheries for many West Coast forage species.  That legal challenge is ongoing, and if we are successful, fishery managers will be compelled to conduct a thorough analysis of different ways to manage forage fish fisheries, including the approaches put forward by Oceana, the Lenfest Task Force, and others.  

Some key forage species like herring and market squid are managed by state governments.  In California, Oceana is working on legislation, AB 1299, that would require the state to adopt an ecosystem-based approach to forage species management.  In addition, based on pressure from Oceana and other conservation groups, the California Fish and Game Commission is now considering adoption of an official Commission policy on forage species, which would implement some of these concepts.

We agree with many of the findings of the Lenfest Task Force and we are convinced that this and a growing body of science demonstrate the need and the tools for protecting ocean food webs.  

The Task Force recommends fishery managers:
•    Cut forage fishing by half in many ecosystems,
•    Tailor management to available information; with low information, no new fisheries should be allowed to operate,
•    Consider spatial and temporal management (protect foraging hotspots for seabirds, mammals, etc…), and
•    Focus on forage fish predators (managers should work to ensure that there is a greater than 95% chance that predators do not become vulnerable to extinction through prey competition).
The findings and recommendations by the Task Force should be a wake-up call for fishery managers and game changer for protecting ocean food webs.  The release of this report counters claims by industry opponents that the science does not support more precautionary management.  In the mean-time, while the debate goes on, we will keep fighting for the little fish with a BIG IMPACT.  

For more information, please see our report, Forage Fish: Feeding the California Current Marine Ecosystem.