Big fish, little fish: Fisheries Council looks at pre-emptive protection

Sardines being cooked over a fire on a beach in Spain Credit: glidemax/via Wikimedia Commons

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."

Of course, the concern goes beyond the welfare of the higher-value predatory species. Commercial fishermen realize that if forage fish were harvested commercially, they'd probably be ground up to feed fish raised by their competitors in the aquaculture industry.

There is, to be sure, a potential clash of economic interests: Commercial fishermen know that low-value forage fish are converted into high-value predator species. They also know that if low-value forage fish are caught commercially, they'll be converted to feed used in the aquaculture operations that compete with traditional small-boat fisheries. And they'll be caught for the economic benefit of people who own and fish from larger boats.

In its letter to the PFMC, the Pacific Coast Federation of Fishermen's Associations argues that the "best use clearly for [forage fish] stocks [such as sardines and herring] that are being fished is for human consumption, with some for bait, to achieve the highest economic value for each pound delivered. The Council should discourage the use of these fish stocks for such uses as animal feeds (e.g., feed for tuna 'ranches' and salmon farms) and industrial products — that fail to achieve the highest economic value or human nutritional use of these fish."

Some environmental groups have also argued for a moratorium on catching new species of forage fish, realizing that directly or indirectly, the big schools of small fish are vital to sea birds and mammals. "[S]eabirds are now recognized as the most endangered birds in the world," the Portland Audubon Society wrote to the PFMC. "Commercial fisheries, through direct competition for prey species and mortality on fishing gear, are a principal sea-based threat to seabirds."

"[T]he average humpback whale eats up to one and a half tons (1,361 kg) of food per day," the president of the American Cetacean Society's Oregon chapter wrote. "If forage stocks are depleted, we will inevitably see a decline in cetacean populations as their food becomes scarcer."

An April report from the Lenfest Ocean Program entitled "Little Fish, Big Impact," suggests that in many ecosystems, fishing for some forage species already commercially harvested should be cut in half. The report, issued by a group of marine scientists that included the University of Washington's Dee Boersma and Tim Essington, also suggests that in fishries already managed, the biomass of forage fish left in the ocean should double.

The "Little Fish, Big Impact" authors argue that forage fish should be managed for the survival of the predatory species that depend on them. The scientists explain that forage fish are especially vulnerable to overfishing for two reasons: They tend to form big schools, which lets people with nets catch a lot of them at once. And they tend to go through wide population swings. Overfish a species while it is in a trough, and the whole population may crash.

That is basically what happened to California sardines in the mid-20th century. "In the 1930s and 1940s, sardines dominated the fish landings in North America and comprised the largest single-species fishery in the Western hemisphere," according to a February Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper by Juan P. Zwolinski and David A. Demer. The sardines supported the Monterrey canneries about which John Steinbeck wrote, and which still form the re-purposed infrastructure of Monterrey's touristy Cannery Row. But ocean waters grew colder, heavy fishing continued, and before long, the larger, older sardines that swam north along the Northwest coast to forage in the summer stopped showing up. By mid-century, the great sardine fishery that Steinbeck wrote about only a few years before — he published Cannery Row in 1945 — was history.

Some scientists see the same conditions coming together now, and predict a new sardine crash. "The oceanographic conditions in the north Pacific have shifted to a colder period," write Zwolinski and Demer wrote in an article entitled "A cold oceanographic regime with high exploitation rates in the Northeast Pacific forecasts a collapse of the sardine stock." Zwolinksi and Demer report that "Pacific sardine biomass has declined precititously in the California Current, the international sardine fishery is collapsing. . . . This situation occurred in the mid-1900s." And they warn that "our acoustic-trawl surveys indicate it likely is recurring now. . . . Also alarming is the repetiiton of the fishery's response to a declining sardine stock — progressively higher exploitation rates targeting the oldest, largest, and most fecund fish."

The prediciton of a new sardine crash draws a lot of argument. But at the very least, the history of the sardine fishery provides an object lesson.

Paul Shively, campaign manger for Pew's Pacific Fish Conservation Program, says that a decision by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council to protect the forage fish would be revolutionary. Traditionally, fishery managers have figured that people should be free to catch a fish species unless somebody can show that catching it would do harm. If the council decides to protect forage fish, it will flip this around: no one can catch the fish until he can show that it won't do harm. Shively says this would "shift the burden of proof."

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