From whales to red snapper, important marine animals eat smaller fish and organisms to survive. Prey’s role in the food web is critical to a healthy, robust ocean ecosystem. But people are not doing enough to ensure the abundance of prey species to feed valuable fish populations and marine life.
The need to protect this basic prey, which ranges from mullet and menhaden to sardines and anchovies, is growing more urgent in the Southeast. Populations of some of these small fish have plummeted, partly because billions have been scooped up by industrial fishing to serve as ingredients in fertilizer, pet food, and other products.
It’s like a run on vegetables in the grocery store. Without this important food staple, diets are compromised, and it’s a scramble to find suitable substitutes. That disruption can send an unhealthy ripple effect stretching across the ocean ecosystem.
Protecting the prey is fundamental to rebuilding depleted fish populations, conserving marine animals, and maintaining a balanced food web.
Southeastern festivals still pay tribute to the mullet, which was one of the most widely caught fish in the South Atlantic in the early 1900s. At that time, up to 40 million pounds of mullet were hauled from the sea each year for bait and dinner plates.
But over the years, the population of this fish has dwindled to as low as 25 percent of historic levels. Generally weighing less than four pounds and growing up to 18 inches, mullet are a favorite bait for fishermen targeting dozens of game fish, including snook and king mackerel. Mullet also serve an important role in the marine ecosystem as food for species such as cobia, bluefish, and amberjacks.
Once abundant from North Carolina to Florida, mullet are losing ground, putting the health of the marine ecosystem at risk.
Case Study: Menhaden
Menhaden are often called the most important fish in the sea. Barely reaching a foot long, they are a critical food source for wildlife and other fish, including tuna, bluefish, striped bass, and tarpon.
Yet their populations along the Atlantic coast, from Maine to Florida, are at a record low—just 10 percent of historic levels. The shortage threatens the Atlantic marine food web and could cripple the commercial and sport fishing industries. Studies of osprey and striped bass show that the share of menhaden in their diets has declined.
The menhaden population must grow to ensure a sufficient supply for fishermen to catch and for predators to eat. In November 2011, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission reduced allowable catch by nearly one-third as a first step toward helping the species begin to rebuild.
Who wants the prey?
Across the United States, market pressure is increasing to expand industrial fishing for prey species, which often become ingredients in popular products such as pet food and fertilizer. They also are ground up to become ingredients in fish meal used by the booming global fish-farming industry. Farmed fish now account for almost half of the seafood consumed by people worldwide.
Although prey species have been known for their abundance and rapid reproduction, scientists are finding evidence that they are just as susceptible to long-term population declines as are animals higher on the food chain.
Fishery managers must consider the role that basic prey species play in the marine food web and weigh their importance when setting fishing rules. Taking scientific stock of the state of prey species is critical. Special protections for prey are particularly needed to help ensure sufficient food for overfished species to rebuild their populations. Prey protections are the best way to guarantee abundant food and a healthy ocean ecosystem for marine life, which draws millions of people to the coast for diving, fishing, boating, and other recreation.