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The State of the Science - Forage Fish in the California Current

The California Current flows southward from British Columbia bringing cool waters along the West Coast and producing a nutrient-rich upwelling that supports diverse species of forage fish. These play an important and often underappreciated role in the “middle” of the food web. Species, such as the Pacific sardine and northern anchovy, eat plankton and nourish predators such as whales, sea lions, seabirds, sharks, salmon, and tuna. Changes in the availability of forage fish— abundance, size, timing, and location —have been shown to affect populations of predators. In addition, fisheries targeting forage fish may indirectly or directly compete with predator needs. Although some forage fish are consumed by humans, most are used for nonfood products such as animal feed, pet food, and fishing bait.

Forage fish populations are influenced by environmental variation, natural processes, and human activities such as fishing, coastal development, and pollution. They are also subject to natural population cycles. These factors are not always well-understood and are difficult to incorporate into most management approaches. Few forage fisheries are managed, and of those that are, managers rarely consider factors such as predator needs or environmental conditions. Yet economic and ecosystem research indicates that forage fish may be more valuable as prey than as catch.

Several large-scale studies have also recently suggested thresholds of forage fish biomass that should remain in the ocean for predators. Considering the increasing number of threats to forage fish, scientists recommend that efforts should be made to control those factors that we can, such as fishing, to help ensure the maximum resilience possible to factors that we cannot easily control, such as climate change. This approach is important for the health of both forage fish stocks and the predators that rely on them. 

Learn more: 

Northern AnchovyPacific Sardine
SmeltPacific Herring
Figure: Common forage fish species in the California Current (illustrations are not to scale)

Read the report:

Full Report: The State of the Science: Forage Fish in the California Current


Related News and Resources

  • New Research Points to the Need for Caution in Managing Forage Fish

    • Other Resource
    • Apr 11, 2014
    Led by Pew marine fellows Tim Essington and Steve Munch, the research looked for indicators of when the harvest of these smaller species, often called forage fish, could have a significant impact on predators, including commercially valuable fish species.


  • Study Offers New Ecosystem Approach to Parrotfish Management

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    • Apr 07, 2014
    A March 2014 study in the journal Fish and Fisheries describes a new approach to ecosystem-based fisheries management of coral reefs in the Caribbean centered on one very charismatic reef dweller–the parrotfish.


  • Columbian: In Our View: Small Forage Fish a Big Deal

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    • Apr 08, 2014
    The Pacific Fishery Management Council is expected to have a big conversation this week about some small things. Well, small in size but large in importance.


  • The News Guard: Pay Attention to Little Fish

    • Opinion
    • Apr 02, 2014
    For those of us who live on the Oregon Coast or make a living from the sea, the Pacific Ocean seems immense. Everything about it is big. Huge waves crash against coastal headlands, vast distances challenge every search and rescue operation.


  • Big Moment at Hand for Protecting Little, Critical Pacific Fish

    • Other Resource
    • Mar 25, 2014
    Little fish like saury and sand lance don’t get the same public attention as charismatic ocean wildlife such as seabirds, whales, dolphins, or bigger fish—salmon and tuna. However, these little “forage fish” will take center stage in April when regional leaders recommend how the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration, or NOAA, should set fishing limits on the West Coast of the United States.


  • Protect Critical Prey for Ocean Wildlife

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    • Mar 24, 2014
    Now is the time to ensure that forage fish receive the protection they need. After all, these little fish are a big deal.


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