Save the sandlance. And the saury. And the grunion. All are "forage fish," the real-world small fish that big fish eat. They're all little plant-eaters that school together and get munched by tuna, salmon, or other critters higher up the food chain. For many species, being small and tasty is a phase. For forage fish, that's as good as it gets.
Human beings eat some kinds of forage fish: Think anchovies, herring, sardines. And humans make money by catching them, grinding them into fish meal, and selling them as food for pen-raised salmon and other fish, for hogs, for domestic cats. At this point, no one eats or makes money from sand lances et. al. The Pew Environment Group's Pacific Forage Fish Campaign, among others, would like to keep it that way.
Later this month, when the Pacific Fisheries Management Council convenes in San Mateo, Pew and others hope the council will decide to protect those currently unmanaged species. In a letter to the council, which manages commercial fisheries off the Northwest and California coasts beyond state waters and within the United States' 200-mile zone of economic exclusion, Pew asks it to "adopt an objective of preventing . . . new fisheries from developing on these stocks until sufficient scientific knowledge is available to manage an ecologically sustainable fishery."
Basically, the idea is to develop a management plan for forage fish — and to ban commercial fishing for them until a plan is completed.
Michele Culver, a Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife regional manager who represents the department's director on the council, thinks that one way or another, that will happen. "The question really isn't whether or not to protect them but how to get there," she says. Culver explains that the council has only one precedent for protecting an unexploited species way down the food chain. "Back in 2006," she recalls, "it was brought to the council's attention that there was the potential . . . for the commercial harvest of krill," the tiny crustaceans on which the great baleen whales feed, and which are caught commercially by Norway, Russia and Japan. "We did not have any restrictions for that new fishery, [so] the council took action to prohibit the harvest of krill."
This time, "in the last couple of years, we have heard from two large environmental groups, Pew and Oceana, that we did not have simiilar protections in place for other forage species." It has taken a while to deal with the subject because of other issues. Now, the council has the space on its agenda, and has set aside considerable time to discuss the idea, she said.
The council could incorporate forage fish into an ecosystem plan — which Culver says "is still in its infancy" — or into the existing coastal pelagic species management plan, under which fisheries for krill, sardines, anchovies and mackerel are already banned or regulated. Because the pelagic species management plan is already up and running, Culver says, that appears likely to offer the better approach.
The idea of protecting forage fish has won support from a wide array of groups, not only environmental organizations but also commercial and sport fishermen, who realize that forage fish are vital to the more glamorouis species they pursue. The Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations wrote that it "has long been concerned for the protection of . . . species that are prey for economically valuable food fish fisheries, including salmon, tuna, billfish, white bass, sablefish and halibut." Because of this concern, "we respectfully request the Pacific Council suspend development of new fisheries on species that play an important forage role in the marine ecosystem. We believe such a suspension is necessary until the council has a fully developed ecosystem management plan, to enable it to determine the take of forage stocks on other fish and the marine environment."
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