This time of year, it’s easy to see signs of a healthy ocean up and down the U.S. West Coast: breaching humpback whales in Puget Sound, thick clouds of sooty shearwaters in the skies of California, and plenty of fresh seafood in coastal communities. All of it depends on abundant populations of small schooling prey fish teeming just below the ocean surface.
Conversely, there are serious consequences when forage dwindles. Earlier this year, wildlife rehabilitation centers in California treated more than 1,500 emaciated sea lion pups at a time when prey fish were scarce.
Thanks in large part to an outpouring of public support, fishery managers on the West Coast are taking steps to better protect prey fish as the cornerstone of a healthy ocean. On June 24, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, meeting in Garden Grove, CA, moved to revise its list of authorized fisheries to prevent industrial-scale fishing from beginning on Pacific saury, which could be done without so much as a heads up to the council. The revised list now goes out for public comment.
The council proposed to remove saury from its list of existing fisheries, setting the stage for enacting more-lasting protections for this and other currently unmanaged forage fish at its September meeting.
"It makes sense that we protect Pacific saury as soon as possible, especially as the West Coast’s sardine population appears to be declining and sardine fishermen may look to saury as a replacement."
Though saury have not been fished along the West Coast in decades, those who sought the council action want to ensure that any future fishing is properly managed. The dart-shaped saury is a crucial food source for whales, seabirds, and sharks, as well as bigger game fish such as marlin and tuna.
The council acted after hearing from thousands of West Coast residents, fishing groups, and seafood businesses concerned about maintaining a productive marine environment.
“Making sure we ask questions before a new fishery begins exemplifies one of the hallmarks of ecosystem-based fisheries management,” says Paul Shively, who manages Pacific fish conservation for The Pew Charitable Trusts. “It makes sense that we protect Pacific saury as soon as possible, especially as the West Coast’s sardine population appears to be declining and sardine fishermen may look to saury as a replacement.”
This spring, the council adopted a fishery ecosystem plan that begins to consider how everything is connected in the ocean. The plan’s first order of business is to make sure that no new fishing begins on forage species without first evaluating the effect on the larger ecosystem and on predator fish such as salmon, tuna, and lingcod.