The ABCs of Ecosystem-Based Fisheries Management—Part II

Forage Fish: The Oceans’ Little Heroes

A striper chasing some menhaden
A striped bass chasing some menhaden.

Most Americans don’t think about fisheries policy when eating fish. But in fact, the supply of popular species such as cod, tuna, and salmon depends very much on how we manage them in the sea. If anglers, chefs, and diners want to continue catching, cooking, and eating fish, we need to change our policies so we can maintain the health of the small fish that nourish the larger ones.

Species such as herring, menhaden, and sardines—commonly known as forage fish—make up the menu for much of the wildlife in our ocean. These schooling fish eat tiny plants and animals near the ocean’s surface. In turn, they are eaten by a host of other animals—including larger fish, seabirds, and whales—making them a vital part of the marine food web. Studies have shown, for example, that forage fish can compose up to 70 percent of a king salmon’s diet.

Fishermen have long appreciated the relationship between forage fish and larger species, but over the past decade a growing body of research into the ecological roles of these small fish has added new scientific insights. This includes perhaps the most comprehensive study to date, conducted by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force: 13 eminent scientists convened by Stony Brook University’s Institute for Ocean Conservation Science.

The report from the task force’s three-year analysis, released in the spring of 2012, found that “globally, forage fish are twice as valuable in the water as in a net—contributing $11.3 billion by serving as food for other commercially important fish.” So to foster healthy ocean ecosystems where bluefin tuna and other depleted commercial and recreationally important species can thrive, our nation must enact consistent polices to ensure that enough forage fish are left in the water to sustain ocean wildlife.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages more than 100 species from California to Washington State, has already recognized the importance of forage fish to healthy marine ecosystems. The council voted unanimously in September 2013 to amend existing fishery management plans in order to “prohibit the development of new commercial fisheries” on forage species, such as sand lance and saury, that are not currently managed or monitored. This action builds on proactive steps that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council took in Alaska beginning in the 1990s to protect the food that key commercial species depend on in the region that council oversees.

Much remains to be done. But an impressive coalition of commercial fishermen, sport fishing organizations, ecotourism businesses, conservation groups, and others has come together to ensure that the Pacific Fishery Management Council translates its goals into firm, enforceable policies. Progress in protecting key forage species in other parts of the country, however, has been opposed by certain commercial fishing interests and some state and federal fishery management officials. This jumble of conflicting state and federal policies on forage fish conservation should not continue.

As the Lenfest task force warned in its report, “Conventional management can be risky for forage fish because it does not adequately account for their wide population swings and high catchability. It also fails to capture the critical role of forage fish as food for marine mammals, seabirds, and commercially important fish such as tuna, salmon, and cod.”

So if we want to protect the future of blue marlin, Warsaw grouper, and other depleted species, we need to ensure that these predators have ample forage fish to prey on. In addition to action by the regional fisheries councils, Congress should approve a uniform national approach to fisheries management that takes into account the health of marine ecosystems and the critical interactions between prey and predator species.

Forage fish populations in U.S. waters deserve proactive and consistent management that recognizes their unique role in supporting healthy oceans. This is a fundamental component of an ecosystem-based approach to fishery management. We have the science. Now we need the policies to take better care of these small but hugely important species that knit together the marine food web.

Lee Crockett joined The Pew Charitable Trusts in June 2007 as director of Federal Fisheries Policy. As Ddirector, U.S. Oceans, he led Pew’s efforts to establish policies to end overfishing and promote ecosystem-based fisheries management in the United States under the authority of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the federal law that governs ocean fish management. As director, Crockett oversees all of Pew’s U.S. fisheries campaigns. These include efforts in the Northeast, South Atlantic, Gulf of Mexico, U.S. Caribbean, and the Pacific. Before joining Pew, Crockett was executive director of the Marine Fish Conservation Network, the largest national coalition dedicated exclusively to promoting the sustainable management of ocean fish. Under his leadership, the campaign helped efforts to reauthorize and strengthen the MSA. Previously, he was a fishery biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service, leading agency efforts to protect essential fish habitat. He also served as a staff member of the House Committee on Merchant Marine and Fisheries, working on a variety of fisheries, environmental and boating safety issues. Crockett holds a bachelor’s degree in biology and a master’s degree in biological oceanography from the University of Connecticut. Before college, he served in the U.S. Coast Guard. He’s also an avid angler who enjoys fishing the Potomac River and Chesapeake Bay.
  • Russ

    The article seems to ignore the most critical of all ocean ecosystem factors. It is well established that collapse of primary productivity in the oceans is widespread and globally totals at least a 40% decline in only a few decades.

    This productivity is the “grass/plankton” of ocean pastures and just as Walt Whitman said “all beef is grass,” I say all fish is plankton.

    We have successfully replenished and restored the first large ocean pasture in the Gulf of Alaska in 2012. The results swam home to us last fall in the form of the largest catch of salmon in Alaskan history. Where 50 million fish were expected, a large catch, instead 226 million were caught. http://russgeorge.net/2013/10/28/fish-came-back-next-day/

    This same result will surely be practical in depleted ocean pastures around the world… by replenishing and restoring a modest number of those crippled ocean ecosystems we can sustainably deliver a billion extra fish into the nets and onto the plates of hungry people around the world. http://russgeorge.net/2014/04/11/bring-back-fish-everywhere/

    The work is not without controversy as this Earth Day story points out. http://www.nationalreview.com/article/376258/pacifics-salmon-are-back-thank-human-ingenuity-robert-zubrin/page/0/1#comments

  • Robert B. Vanasse

    Saving Seafood examined Mr. Crockett’s claims, and found that much remains to be studied and understood before ecosystem-based management can work for every species. Read more: http://www.savingseafood.org/alerts/pew-natgeo-column-oversimplifies-ecosystem-based-management-of-forage.html

    Mr. Crockett lumps together a diverse group of species (herring, menhaden, squid, shrimp, shellfish, jellyfish, and many others) under the umbrella term “forage fish,” though these species have a variety of biological differences — including fecundity, spawning periods, migration, predator-prey relationships, and habitat. These species do not have much in common outside of their trophic level and cannot be successfully managed in the same way.

    The Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force’s economic analysis is based on a similar set of assumptions for which the report does not actually provide evidence. Read more: http://www.savingseafood.org/management-regulation/on-forage-fish-pews-peter-baker-misses-the-3.html

    A shift toward ecosystem-based fisheries management for all fisheries is a common goal shared by managers, industry members, and conservationists alike. But managers have stated that many fisheries simply have not yet reached the point at which ecosystem-based management is possible and productive. Ultimately, adopting premature and incomplete ecosystem-based components to future stock assessments would leave fisheries with less science-based management than at the present.

  • Dick Grachek

    Actually, a “forage fish” is any fish that a larger fish can get into his/her mouth. The fish that Pew is calling “forage”, i.e., Menhaden, Herring, Sardines, Anchovy, Squid, and Mackerel, Scup, and Whiting, are most of the time amazingly abundant. But, their populations vary along with everything else in their natural, i.e. variations in wind, currents, air and water temperature food supply, spawning conditions, abundance of a particularly hungry co-inhabiting species.

    On Georges Bank, for example, Herring eat Cod eggs. Cod eat clams, crabs, and beer cans. Bass eat lobsters. Dogfish eat Flounder and Fluke and just about everything else in sight. Squid eat small Hake and Hake eat Squid. So who’s “forage” and who’s “predator”?

    The fish that Pew is calling “forage” are prolific breeders when conditions are right. They are short lived so populations go through boom and bust naturally. These stocks can vary widely and have done so forever; and because of this fact, population statistics can be selectively manipulated by choosing a particularly scarce or abundant year to “prove” statistically just about anything. http://www.savingseafood.org/alerts/providence-journal-analysis-finds-pew-environments-menhaden-claim-mostly-f-2.html

    Squid for instance live for approximately one year or less; but, when conditions are favorable their eggs cover the bottom and are so thick they’ll plug the net and almost stop the boat. The following year’s spawn might be a fraction of the previous year’s for a myriad of factors, the least of which is commercial fishing mortality.

    The fact is that local independent fishermen cannot work on depleted stocks, fuel and vessel overhead is far too expensive and no one happens to care more about the future health of the stocks. When a particular species is scarce, boats will either stay at the dock, or re-rig for something else, for another species that’s abundant that year or that season. But, thanks to misleading campaigns such as this one from Pew/Lenfest, family small boat operations are being painted with the same brush as the market capitalized factory ship operations of Pacific Andes’ “China Fishery” for example.

    Fish regulation is big business, bigger than the business it claims to regulate. The more alarming the extinction claims, the more the tax-sheltered contributions flow, from both the duped general public and the overlord corporate boards, and the more relevant the hordes of “fish management” jobs at NOAA appear.

    The notion that a handful of coastal fishing vessels could influence the population health of fish that show up in schools so massive that they are referred to in terms of “shoals” is complete nonsense. These short lived prolific breeders have always had radically fluctuating populations depending on many radically fluctuating biological factors. Attempting to micro-manage and control these stocks is a fool’s errand. It’s like trying to manage Starlings…

    The real eco-tragedy is that the anti-fishing eco-NGOs, with their campaigns of misinformation, have discredited the entire ecological movement, the need for which is becoming more evident every day in terms of climate and air quality and ocean temperature, acidity, etc.. But the eco-champions at Pew, EDF, Oceana and Lenfest are funded by the oil companies—the actual polluters—so they certainly won’t bite their own hand and engage some of the real threats to the atmosphere that they are helping to create and which indeed are destroying the plankton and Krill.

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