In response to a proposal by Oceana, the Pacific Fishery Management Council took precautionary action to prevent a fishery for shortbelly rockfish, set a new precedent for considering ecosystem needs when setting forage species and groundfish catch levels and added Pacific herring and jack smelt to its Coastal Pelagic Species fishery management plan.
The shortbelly rockfish is a critically important food source for seabirds, marine mammals, and other recreational and commercial fish including Chinook salmon. The Council reduced the catch limit of this species to less than one percent of allowed levels to account for its ecosystem importance. This is the first time the Council has stopped a fishery from developing for a fish species based on recognition of its importance as forage for other marine life.
The Council - the federal management body that advises the National Marine Fisheries Service on U.S. West Coast fisheries – set a new precedent for accounting for the needs of the ecosystem when determining catch levels for forage species and groundfish. Those fisheries include sardine, anchovy, mackerel, market squid, rockfish, flatfish, whiting and others. The PFMC voted to amend its Coastal Pelagic Species and Groundfish Fishery Management Plans to evaluate and consider whether or not harvest levels of these important fish species provide for the needs of whales, dolphins and seabirds, as well as significant commercial and sport fish, like salmon, tuna and halibut.
“The PFMC is recognizing that some fish are simply more valuable in the water than they are in fishing nets,” said Dr. Geoff Shester, California Program Director for Oceana. “We can’t afford to continually ignore the relationship between species up and down the food web.”
The PFMC also voted to add Pacific herring and jack smelt to its Coastal Pelagic Species fishery management plan as “Ecosystem Component” species. This is a new designation that will highlight the importance of these species as forage for other recreationally and commercially important species, seabirds and marine mammals.
“This is significant because it acknowledges the wisdom behind ecosystem-based management,” said Oceana’s Ben Enticknap, Pacific Project Manager. “If fishery managers continue to ignore the value of forage species as a food source for other ocean animals, we run the risk of the food web crashing down like a house of cards, further impeding the recovery of important fish like Chinook salmon that depend on abundant forage species.” Climate change and bycatch are two key threats to forage species. There are signs of decline like the recent listing of Pacific eulachon (smelt) as threatened under the Endangered Species Act and low returns of herring to West Coast bays and estuaries.
Oceana has worked with Council members and policy makers to move to a cautious, ecosystem-based management approach and to maintain a healthy food web through the protection of critical forage species. In 2005 that work resulted in the PFMC’s unanimous decision to prohibit the harvest of all krill species off the US West Coast. While Oceana stresses that there is still much work to be done, Tuesday’s decisions represent further progress in the pursuit of sustainability and healthy ecosystems. Oceana, however, was disappointed that the Council failed to implement overfished limits for targeted forage species like mackerel and anchovy as required by the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
In particular the organization continues to work toward the completion and implementation of a comprehensive Ecosystem Fishery Management Plan, including management measures that will protect all important forage species, the food web and ocean habitats. The Council will begin working on the Ecosystem Fishery Management Plan in September 2010.