The Pacific Fishery Management Council has declared its intent to improve protection of forage fish as its inaugural initiative under its newly proposed Fishery Ecosystem Plan. The proposal was released for public comment on Feb. 14.
"We're encouraged to see West Coast fishery leaders signal their intent to account for the critical role that forage species play in sustaining a vibrant Pacific marine food web that supports seabirds, whales, and bigger fish like salmon, tuna, and ling cod," said Paul Shively, who manages Pew's efforts to conserve forage fish on the Pacific coast. "Now it's important for the council to follow through and adopt this fishery ecosystem plan in April, so that it can move ahead with firm protections for these fish that form the cornerstone of a productive ocean ecosystem."
The Pacific Fishery Management Council oversees fishing in federal waters from three to 200 miles off the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington. It has been working on developing an ecosystem plan since 2009.
Animation: Why forage fish protection is important
“It’s time to start moving ecosystem-based fisheries management from theory into practice,” Shively said. “It’s appropriate that the council has identified conservation of forage fish as its first concrete ecosystem initiative.”
The council is proposing to extend protection to currently unmanaged species of forage fish that are vulnerable to new fisheries emerging at any time. Forage fish are small schooling species that eat microscopic plants and animals drifting near the ocean’s surface, in turn becoming protein for fish and wildlife higher on the food web.
A 2011 analysis by the council noted that industrial demand for forage fish is likely to grow because of its value as a global commodity, used in feeding livestock, poultry, and farmed fish. The analysis cited the “spectacular growth” of global aquaculture, and the need to use wild-caught forage fish as food, as raising the prospect of new and unregulated fisheries expanding to forage species not currently managed or protected. The council has received approximately 30,000 public comments over the past year and a half encouraging it to strengthen protection of forage fish.
In April 2012, the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, a group of 13 eminent scientists from around the world, calculated that forage fish are worth twice as much in the water as in the net solely because of their value as prey for commercially valuable fish higher on the food web. The panel recommended that no new fisheries be allowed to begin on forage species when there is little information about their population characteristics, the degree to which predators are dependent on them, or forage-distribution patterns. The Pacific Fishery Management Council, to its credit, now is proposing to move ahead with such a precautionary approach.