The Beacon

Big Safeguards Achieved for Small Fish in California

Humpback whales feeding on forage fish in Monterey Bay ©Richard Fitzer

While lax catch limits for federally-managed west coast forage fish like sardines continue to be a source of major concern, the state of California announced today that, at least for state-regulated forage fisheries like squid and herring, it would embrace a new ecosystem-based management system, with an eye towards sustainability.

Forage fish may not be as charismatic as sharks or as majestic as blue whales, but, these small, nutrient rich species -- like squid and herring-- have finally received their long-awaited turn in the spotlight.

Forage fish pack a punch of nutrients to whales, dolphins, sea birds, and recreationally and commercially important fish. They are critical to the survival of our magnificent blue whales as well as the recovery of depleted Chinook salmon. However, until now, these little fish have not been managed in a way that accounts for the vital role they play in ocean health and ocean economics. This will change as the California Fish and Game Commission will now make their decisions on how to manage all the state’s forage species based on a set of principles that were fleshed out with input from conservation and fishing entities.

The heart of the new policy is to prevent the development of new forage fisheries or expansion of existing fisheries until there is adequate science available to ensure that those fisheries can be conducted sustainably and without negative consequences for ocean health. Major existing state-managed fisheries on forage species include market squid and Pacific herring, while a wide suite of other forage species, such as myctophids, sand lance, and saury are currently not fished but could be subject to new fishery development at any time. The policy now sets the stage for new regulations that puts a red light on the development of new fisheries until we understand the potential consequences. By “freezing the menu” to only allow fisheries already underway, the Commission has created a safeguard against harming the foundation of our ocean food web. The pressure for increased forage fisheries is coming from global demand for fish meal and fish oil for a booming aquaculture industry.  Without food fish in our waters, our wild fish cannot grow and thrive

We are pleased with the precautionary precedent the Commission has set, moving away from the status-quo of antiquated fisheries management whereby fisheries are managed only considering one species at a time, to now considering how species interact with one another.  Ultimately, this requires that we really examine potential consequences before they occur rather than responding to crises. Removing too many of one species can have cascading effects throughout the marine ecosystem, not just affecting marine mammals and sea birds, but also impacting the revenue generated to communities by ocean tourism, commercial fishing, and recreational fishing.

As we keep up the good fight to protect the integrity of ocean health, we can take a moment to celebrate a key milestone in California fisheries management, resulting from over six years of strong advocacy in collaboration with a growing coalition of forage advocates.

Thank you to all of you who supported this policy by signing our letter of support to the Commission and providing testimony at their meeting in Los Angeles. It is a big victory for little fish.


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