Precautionary approaches to fishery management for the ocean’s tiny fish are picking up steam across the US West Coast.
California state wildlife advisors recently adopted the state’s first forage fish policy by a unanimous vote and federal fisheries managers recently committed to prohibit new fisheries from developing on unmanaged forage species. Now, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary has become part of the broad, diverse coalition in defense of forage fish for a healthy ocean food web.
Late yesterday afternoon, the Monterey Bay Sanctuary Advisory Council adopted a resolution recognizing the important role of forage species, lending support for state and federal fishery managers’ commitments to afford additional protections to the ocean’s small, but critically important marine species. By protecting the forage base, our priceless underwater backyard will continue to be a highly sought destination for eco-tourism, recreational opportunities, and vibrant fisheries, ultimately benefiting our entire coastal community.
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.
Add fish poop to the growing list of unlikely allies in the fight against global warming. A new study published in the journal Scientific Reports outlines the critical role small forage fish, in particular northern anchovies, play in burying carbon in the deep sea.
It turns out that small fish like anchovies, smelt and sardines are a major component of the so-called "biological pump" that takes carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and sequesters it in the deep, where it can no longer contribute to global warming. That pump begins with photosynthetic, carbon dioxide-absorbing, single-celled algae, like the wonderfully intricate diatoms and dinoflagellates, at the ocean surface. Anchovies then feed on the algae, digest it and release it as fecal pellets which sink to the ocean bottom.
At 22 micrograms of carbon per pellet, the contribution might seem inconsequential, but as the study's authors, Dr. Grace Saba of Rutgers University and professor Deborah Steinberg of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science, explain, the cumulative effect on the carbon cycle by large schools of small forage fish could be considerable.
“Our findings show that—given the right conditions—fish fecal pellets can transport significant amounts of repackaged surface material to depth, and do so relatively quickly,” says Saba.
Those "right conditions" are found off of the western coasts of North and South America where cold, nutrient-rich water from the deep upwells along the continental shelf, and subsequently drive the production of enormous schools of small fish and invertebrates. It's these conditions that are responsible for Peru's anchovy industry or California's iconic sardine industry immortalized in Steinbeck's Cannery Row.
But besides delivering carbon to the deep, forage fish also play a critical role in the larger foodweb, feeding whales, dolphins, seals, larger fish and seabirds. For all these reasons it's critical to employ science-based fisheries management to prevent the collapse of this vital resource. Unfortunately, that has not been the trajectory of forage fisheries management in the Pacific. Learn more about forage fish and Oceana's work to conserve these small but invaluable species.
Editor's Note: This commentary originally appeared in the Monterey Herald.
No town knows better what happens in a fishery crash than Monterey. Our infamous Cannery Row, once the heart of a bustling sardine industry, is now occupied by restaurants and tourist shops. Sadly, we are on a path to yet another Pacific sardine crash.
In a report published in February, National Marine Fisheries Service scientists warn the sardine population off the West Coast is steeply declining and fishery managers are making the same mistakes all over again. Yet, a separate report, "Little Fish Big Impact," by 13 pre-eminent scientists from around the world, concludes that current management of forage fish — like sardines, anchovy, and squid — is too aggressive and that catches should be cut in half.
A third study, aptly referred to as "A Third for the Birds" finds that seabirds are drastically affected when forage fish decline below one-third of their maximum numbers, which is the current situation for Pacific sardines. Hopefully these findings will be the catalyst needed to finally change the way forage species are managed.
Editor's Note: This post was co-written by Ben Enticknap and Geoff Shester
Yesterday a task force of thirteen distinguished scientists from around the globe released a new report, “little fish BIG IMPACT” that investigates the science of ocean food webs, the critical role of forage species, and the urgent need for changing fishery management approaches. In the most comprehensive global analysis of forage fish science and management to date, the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force details how current management is too risky and how it fails to account for the critical role of forage fish as food for marine mammals, seabirds, and commercially important species such as salmon, tuna, cod and rockfish. This report validates what Oceana has been pushing for in the fishery management arena for years, and provides conclusive scientific justification for major overhauls in how we manage fisheries for forage fish.
If you are one of the 3,600 ocean-loving Californians who spoke up for squid, we want to thank you!
You urged the state’s wildlife managers to maintain a healthy ocean ecosystem by not re-opening the market squid fishery after it was closed early when the maximum catch had been fished (118,000 tons or 236 million pounds).
I’m happy to report that the Fish and Game Commission listened, saying it will keep the fishery closed until next season, which opens in April. They also welcomed your request for better management of these critical fish species by adopting a policy that will guide how they manage these small fish and invertebrates into the future.
Forage species like squid, herring, and krill are the base of the ocean food pyramid, feeding everything from the charismatic humpback whale to the commercially important salmon fishery.
There is currently no state policy guiding management of forage species -- this would be the first of its kind.
This is a very exciting step forward and will ensure that fisheries managers start asking the right questions when determining how many forage fish to take out of the ocean. For example: How much squid do Risso’s dolphins need to be healthy? How much krill does the endangered blue whale eat? What’s the current population of dogfish sharks and how much herring do they need?
Also, let’s not forget that forage species are not only critical to a healthy ocean ecosystem, but to California’s economy as they bring in billions of dollars in revenue annually through coastal sectors like recreational and commercial fishing, tourism, and hospitality industries.
Without enough forage species recreational fishers will have to go elsewhere to find their sport fish, restaurants will have a more difficult time getting enough sustainably fresh and wild seafood for their menus, and whale-watching boats will have less diverse wildlife to show people who come all the way to California’s beautiful coast to see whales, seals, dolphins, and seabirds.
Stay tuned as we move toward better fishery management, and thank you again for weighing in!
Ashley Blacow is Oceana's Pacific Policy and Communications Coordinator.
Did you know that the brown pelican relies on northern anchovy for food? Or that the endangered blue whale feeds exclusively on tiny krill at rates of up to 4,000 pounds per day? Or that a record number of young sea lions were stranded on California beaches last year because they didn’t have enough small fish to eat?
Individually they don’t look like much, but small fish and invertebrates called “forage species” school up to form massive underwater bait balls.
These forage fish are the foundation of the marine food web and provide food for nearly everything else higher up the food ladder. Forage species, such as Pacific herring, Pacific sardine, anchovy, smelts, squid and krill are the critical prey for whales, dolphins, sea lions, many types of fish, and millions of seabirds.
Our new report, “Forage Fish: Feeding the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem,” shows the value of forage fish for fisheries and wildlife – and demonstrates that it’s high time that our fisheries managers recognize their big impact in the ocean.
How many forage fish are needed to feed our ocean’s wildlife and preserve the benefits forage species provide us? That is the question we are asking managers to answer and take into account when setting catch quotas.
As consumers we enjoy forage fish without even realizing it. Activities, such as whale watching, enjoying fresh wild salmon for dinner, and going sport fishing, are all possible because those top predators survive on forage fish. And they are important for the economy, too -- tourism, recreation activities, and fishing brought in over $23 billion in GDP to California, Oregon, and Washington combined in 2004 alone.
Oceana is the first conservation group to assess the current status of Pacific forage fish. Our new report details the role of forage species in the California Current marine ecosystem, the threats to forage species populations, and the flawed management structures currently in place. The report documents the large gaps in stock information and show the fisheries mismanagement taking place at multiple levels of state, federal and international government.
Providing and maintaining a healthy, sustainable ocean ecosystem does not mean shutting down existing fisheries—but it does call for change. The challenge is to extend the principles in our new report to create a new way of managing our resources that goes beyond single-species management, and considers the role of forage species within the ecosystem as a whole.
By highlighting the colossal importance of these tiny forage species, Oceana aims to ensure a healthy, diverse, productive, and resilient California Current marine ecosystem. Be sure to check out the full report and let us know what you think!
Yesterday afternoon, the California Assembly acknowledged the critical role that forage species play in maintaining a healthy marine food web by passing Assembly Bill 1299 (AB 1299), sponsored by Oceana and introduced by Assemblymember Jared Huffman (D-San Rafael).
Forage species, like sardines, herring, and market squid, are truly the “heartbeat” of the ocean forming the foundation of the food web – which in turn benefits everything else that eats these small fish.
AB 1299 provides a much needed change in the way California manages its fisheries by establishing a state policy that will for the first time consider how much forage should be left in the ocean. This is not just an environmental issue, but largely an economic one; forage species help support California’s recreation and tourism economy, which is worth over $12 billion annually, providing more than 250,000 jobs in the state.
Humpback whales flock to the California coast, searching for herring, krill, and other small tasty fish. But these small fish, also known as forage fish, are dwindling in numbers due to fishing pressure, pollution, and demand for feed in the agriculture and aquaculture industries, among other threats.
There is currently legislation pending in the California State Assembly that highlights the importance of prey fish and calls for a scientific approach to fishing for them. Right now there is no consistent state policy governing management of forage species, but with your help we can change that.
Today is the last day to speak up for these important creatures - Tell the California State Assembly to support better management of forage species.
Eulachon [yoo-luh-kon] is the official name for a fish that also goes by many others – smelt, ooligan or hooligan, and candlefish, to name a few – and has played a large role in the diets, culture and commerce of the people of the Pacific Northwest since long before Lewis and Clark first arrived. And they are increasingly threatened, which is why they need your help.
But first, let me give you a little background on this iconic fish. In 1806, Meriwether Lewis not only referenced and sketched this small fish in his journal, but went on to praise its deliciousness: “They are so fat they require no additional sauce, and I think them superior to any fish I ever tasted, even more delicate and luscious than the white fish of the lakes which have heretofore formed my standard of excellence among the fishes.”
The scientific name for eulachon, Thaleichthys pacificus, means roughly “oily fish of the Pacific,” and it is indeed their oily nature which has made them so famous. Eulachon oil was such an important trade item for tribes that the trade routes became known as “grease trails”. The name “candlefish” also stems from this quality - if dried and strung on a wick, the fish can actually be burned as a candle.