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Oceana Magazine Spring 2012: The Serengeti of the Sea

By Emily Fisher

Why we need to change the way we think about – and manage – our nation ’s most important little fishes.

Here’s a thought exercise: If you were to fly over the entire Pacific Ocean from west to east searching for whales, how many would you find? Probably not too many – until you arrived at the U.S. Pacific West Coast.

That’s according to Oceana’s Senior Director of the Pacific, Susan Murray. “The California Current ocean ecosystem off Washington, Oregon and California is a foraging hot spot. Species are coming from all over the Pacific to feed on rich little fish,” she said. “It’s the Serengeti of the sea.”

For example, every year thousands of blue whales, humpback whales, fin whales and more flock to California’s waters to feast on abundant krill, squid, sardines and anchovies.

These tiny creatures, known as “forage fish,” might not be as charismatic as whales – but they are among the most important yet underappreciated marine species on Earth. They form the foundation of the marine food web and provide food for everything else larger than they are, including marine mammals, seabirds, and recreationally and commercially important fish species such as salmon and rockfish.

But these tiny fish are increasingly threatened by fishing pressure, climate change and pollution. Oceana is leading the charge in shifting the way we think about, and manage, forage fish – and in the process, paving the way for more abundant oceans and healthy coastal communities.

As a result of their key ecological role, forage fish are central to the economies of the West Coast states, supporting oceanbased tourism and recreation sectors that provide 400,000 jobs and $18 billion in revenue, according to the National Ocean Economics Program. For instance, tourists who venture to the coast for a weekend fishing trip don’t simply buy fishing line and bait, they also purchase food, stay in hotels and spend money in other local businesses. By feeding larger fish, forage fish provide the foundation to keep recreational fishing a vibrant part of the economy.

There is also a direct commercial harvest of forage fish. However, many of the forage fish caught aren’t even destined for human consumption. Most sardines caught on the West Coast, for instance, are fed to ranched bluefin tuna in Australia, or are sold as bait for high seas industrial longline fisheries based out of Asia. Globally, between a quarter and a third of all forage fish caught worldwide is reduced into fish meal and fish oil to feed farmed fish, pigs and chickens.

Using forage fish to feed farmed seafood species such as salmon and bluefin tuna amounts to an incredible waste of protein – anywhere from 50 to 90 percent of the value of the fish is lost, according to Murray. For example bluefin tuna require seven to 25 pounds of sardines to gain a single pound.

Meanwhile, forage fish themselves could provide healthy, sustainable protein for millions of people, in addition to the marine wildlife that depends upon them. Forage fish such as sardines are high in omega-3 fatty acids, which are beneficial to eye, brain and heart health. And because they are low on the ocean food chain, they are lower in dangerous contaminants that accumulate in bigger fish, such as mercury and PCBs. Forage fish also reproduce faster and can be harvested more sustainably than many of the predator fish more commonly found on menus.

Oceana advocates a science-based, precautionary approach to forage fisheries, rather than waiting for them to become depleted before we act.

“Instead of asking how many herring we can take out of the ocean, we should ask how many of the fish do we need to leave in the ocean to support healthy wildlife, a healthy ocean, valuable fisheries, vibrant coastal economics and human consumption needs,” Murray said.

If these questions aren’t taken into consideration, the results could be disastrous for fisheries, wildlife and the coastal economy of the West Coast.

The California Current is a hot spot because it is characterized by strong seasonal upwelling, which occurs when winds drive cold, nutrient-rich water towards the ocean surface, replacing the warmer surface waters. The upwelling fuels the rich plankton blooms that feed the current’s productive ecosystem.

There are only three other places in the world where upwellings like this occur: Peru, the Canary Islands region, and the Benguela Current off Namibia, which is a “sister ecosystem” to the California Current and serves as a cautionary tale of what can occur when forage fish are removed from the ecosystem.

When Namibia’s sardine and anchovy fisheries were aggressively targeted in the early 2000s, their populations collapsed, and jellyfish invaded. Jellyfish are efficient consumers of plankton, and if given the chance, they can and will proliferate. Namibia’s forage fisheries have failed to rebound. The country’s hake fishery collapsed as a result, and some marine animals in the area have become endangered. Gannets, once abundant seabirds that rely on anchovies, are now teetering on the brink.

It is this bleak scenario that Oceana is working hard to prevent on the West Coast. 

“If you care about a healthy ocean, if you like whales and dolphins, if you eat seafood, if you want to have healthy wildlife, then you have to think about the food for those things,” Murray said. “How much is there to eat?”


Oceana’s Campaign

In order to protect the ocean food web, Oceana is working at the state and federal levels to promote an ecosystem-based approach to the management of forage fish. In California, working alongside a coalition of recreational fishermen, conservation organizations, eco-tourism operators and seafood businesses, Oceana is promoting a bill to protect forage fish in state waters.

In December, after working for over five years in the regional fishery management process, Oceana filed a lawsuit against the U.S. government for failing to protect key forage species, such as jack mackerel and anchovy, from overfishing and for failing to account for ecosystem needs when setting catch levels. If Oceana prevails, for the first time the government would have to include forage species’ ecological role when setting catch limits.

The U.S. has already taken some strides to protect the base of the ocean food web. In 2009, Oceana successfully secured a federal ban on establishing a fishery for krill on the West Coast – a major victory in the fight to protect the food web.