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March 13, 2015

Small Fish: Big Victory

Many of the ocean’s tiny fish, the backbone of the marine food web, will now receive landmark protections thanks to years of work by Oceana. On March 10, with a unanimous vote, the Pacific Fishery Management Council prohibited new directed commercial fisheries for seven groups of forage fish. In total, the fish groups make up hundreds of individual species of forage fish.  The fishery council decision protects these tiny fish from the development of new commercial fisheries in federal ocean waters (3 to 200 nautical miles) off Washington, Oregon, and California.

Names like round and thread herring, lantern fish, Pacific sand lance, Pacific saury, Silversides, Osmerid smelts, and neon flying squid may sound funny, but these forage fish play a huge role in supporting a healthy ocean ecosystem. Whales, dolphins, sea lions, seabirds and commercially and recreationally important fish like salmon and tuna rely on forage fish as a substantial part of their diets. It is critical that fisheries are managed in a way that considers the entire food web including the needs of dependent predators and the longevity of future fisheries.

One of the species groups receiving new protections are myctophids, also called lanternfishes. Lanternfishes earn their name from the ability to provide their own light (called bioluminescence). In other words, they glow! Surprisingly ocean samples indicate that lanternfish are among the most widely distributed and diverse of all vertebrates, making up 65 percent of species biomass in the deep sea. Another forage fish called eulachon is a smelt that lives in the ocean but migrates up coastal rivers to spawn. It is listed as threatened under the U.S. Endangered Species Act.

This week’s action by the fishery council builds off its first ever “fishery ecosystem plan” as it works to advance ecosystem-based approaches to fishery management that recognize and protect ocean wildlife and marine habitats while managing for long-term sustainable fisheries. This new approach to fisheries management shifts the burden of proof. In this case, these seven groups of forage fish cannot be intentionally fished unless and until we know more about these species and the science shows they can be fished without causing harm to the ecosystem. This is quite different than traditional management where fishing can begin on a new species with little understanding of what the implications may be. All too often we see crisis-driven management, where action isn’t taken until a population collapses.

The driving force behind these new protections is the growing threat of removing too much of the ocean’s small fish to meet the increased demand for global fishmeal production. Fishmeal is used to feed farmed fish and livestock, which turns out to be an inefficient use of the ocean’s small fish. You could actually feed more people and take less forage out of the ocean if these fish were sold for direct human consumption.    

This week’s vote by the regional fishery council can serve as a model for how to manage fisheries; by first considering the needs of the ocean ecosystem, as opposed to focusing solely on demand and profits. It is critical that other fisheries move away from managing fish on a species by species basis and instead ensure that enough fish are left in the ocean to support dependent predators and other existing fisheries.

This new landmark fisheries policy is a huge victory for the ocean’s small fish! Since 2009, Oceana has called on the Council to protect currently unmanaged forage species to ensure there is an abundant prey source to support dependent predators and ocean resilience.

We appreciate the Council passing this forward-thinking policy that has changed minds and helped protect the ocean. And thanks to everyone who has supported our efforts over the years to protect the ocean’s small fish! 

By Ashley Blacow and Ben Enticknap