The Pacific Fisheries Management Council — the body responsible for managing fish populations off Washington, Oregon and California — has decided to protect the sandlance, the saury, the grunion and other "forage fish" that form the vital bottom of the Pacific's vertebrate food chain — but not until next year.
At a late June meeting in San Mateo, the PFMC voted to update the Federal List of Fisheries and Gear for the West Coast, a set of classifications that determine whether commercial fisheries and gear might compromise West Coast conservation and management measures. The new list will be included in the Fishery Ecosystem Plan, which should be completed next March. And it would add extra protections in the existing fishery management plans.
Though this might sound good, Washington's and Oregon's representatives actually voted "no" on the measure. They preferred the more direct measure introduced by Washington's Michele Culver, which would have protected forage fish under the existing coastal pelagic species (those living near the ocean's surface) management plan.
Culver said that she "wanted the council to look not just at species but also at gear types." To harvest big schools of small forage fish, people would presumably use big seagoing vaccuums. "They could just prohibit the gear," Culver says, and not have to list every conceivable species of fish.
The council could provide concrete protection at a scheduled meeting next June or September. In the meantime, updating the fisheries list would help the National Marine Fisheries Service stay abreast of interest in commercial fishing for the species, even if it doesn't protect it.
An updated fisheries list "would only serve as a speed bump where the PFMC would be notified that a new fishery [was] proposed," said Erik Robinson of the Pew Environment Group's Pacific Fish Conservation Program. "Keep in mind, as it stands today, we don't even have a speed bump because the [list of fisheries] includes a broad . . . category that enables someone to go out and catch saury or sand lance without bothering to tell anybody."
In addition to proposing a timetable and a "speed bump," the council issued a declaration of "intent to recognize the importance of forage fish to the marine ecosystem off our coast, and to provide adequate protection for forage fish. We declare that our objective is to prohibit the development of new directed fisheries on forage species that are not currently managed by our council, or the states, until we have an adequate opportunity to assess the science relating to the fishery and any potential impacts to our existing fisheries and communities."
Virtually everyone at the meeting agreed that delayed protection will be much better than none. "I think we ended up in a good place. I think we will get there," said an optimistic Culver, who says she expects the council's chosen approach to take about six months longer than the one she suggested.
Though Culver and the other Northwest representatives wound up on the losing side, they didn't see the decision as a loss. "I think it was positive for the council to have the discussion," she said. "I think we have a better sense of where everybody's coming from — and we got confirmation that everybody does want to protect forage fish."