Small Fish, Big Break: CA Votes to Protect Ocean's Tiniest Residents

Forage fish must be abundant to feed marine mammals, fish, and birds.

A fisherman arranges dried sardines. (Photo: Pichi Chuang/Reuters)

The director of the Public Trust Project, Alison has written for Grist and Politics Daily, among others.

Small fish have just gotten a big break.

A California state policy adopted this week will limit fishing of “forage fish”—small, schooling fish that make up an important part of the diets of marine animals.

Whales, dolphins, sharks, seabirds, and predator fish have an insatiable appetite for oily, nutrient-packed forage fish like herring, sardines, squid, krill, and anchovies. (Think Finding Nemo, when Nemo and Dory encounter a school of krill swimming as fast as they can away from a giant blue whale.) 

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The California Fish and Game Commission voted unanimously to implement a policy that will protect more forage fish from commercial nets, in order to feed valuable marine predators including Pacific right whales, salmon, tuna, rockfish, pelicans, sea lions, and more.

“The Commission recognizes the importance of forage species to the marine ecosystem off California’s coast,” the policy document stated.

In practice, the policy will prevent the development of new forage fisheries and end the expansion of existing ones until adequate science is available to prove that the populations can be fished sustainably, without detrimental effects to the Pacific ecosystem. 

Oceana, a marine conservation organization, commended the action taken by the Commission. 

“The ocean’s little fish are worth more if we leave them in the water where they can serve their role as prey for larger predators, which helps to support ocean-based tourism and recreational and commercial fishing,” said Ashley Blacow, Pacific Policy and Communications Coordinator with Oceana.

The decision comes at a time when the value of forage fish is being debated nationwide. Herring, sardines, and other forage species are often targeted by commercial fisheries en masse—when reduced in fishmeal and fish oil, they are a key ingredient in feeds used by aquaculture operations, livestock farms, and pet food companies.

But concerns have been growing about whether these massive “reduction” fisheries take too many forage fish out of marine ecosystems. Forage fish account for one-third of the global fish catch.

A recent report by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, a 13-member panel of international scientists, found that the value of leaving forage fish in the ocean as a food source for predators is $11 billion—twice as much as the 5.6 billion those fish generate when reduced into fish meal and fish oil for aquaculture, animal feed, and pet food.

Slowly but surely, these concerns are being translated into how forage fish are regulated by the federal and state level fishery management bodies.

The population of menhaden, a forage fish found in the Atlantic Ocean, is at a record-low level. But proposed regulations by the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission may soon set a limit on menhaden fishing—for the first time in history. 

On the opposite coast, the Pacific Fishery Management Council is developing an unprecedented “ecosystem plan,” which will help fishery managers take the Pacific Ocean’s food chain into account when setting regulations that determine what levels of fishing will be allowed.   

“The plan will give greater protection to forage fish by prohibiting new fisheries for currently unmanaged species while developing an index of health for the overall forage base to guide future decisions,” said Ken Hinman, president of the National Coalition for Marine Conservation’s Wild Oceans project. 

Increasing the abundance of forage fish is an important step toward ensuring the health of marine wildlife. “Forage fish are worth more in the water than when they are caught in the net,” Blacow said. 

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