These small, silvery creatures — herring, anchovies, euchalon and more — shuttle energy through the food web between primary producers, like microscopic plants and algae, and bigger aquatic predators.
“They’re small fish that most people don't typically see but that really make the marine food web go round for larger organisms … that pay attention to where those things are and where they're not,” says Dr. Jen Zamon, a research fishery biologist with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Northwest Fisheries Science Center who works on forage fish. “And if they're moving around, that's going to change the distribution of everything else that's feeding upon them.”
“Pretty much anything in the water that has a mouth big enough to fit a forage fish in it eats forage fish,” says Phil Dionne, a research scientist with the Washington state Department of Fish and Wildlife who specializes in forage fish.
They also have economic value. Humans churn them into fertilizer, dangle them as bait and eat them outright. Salish Sea tribes have traditionally looked to herring for protein, especially at times of year when salmon and other fish aren’t as available, Suquamish tribal biologist Steve Todd says.
Some studies estimate that these fish add $16.9 billion to the global economy, both from direct harvest and from benefits to predators like salmon and the Tufted Puffin. And yet for most Washingtonians, they remain invisible — even when they are in our backyards.
“Even in the interactions I have sometimes with shoreline landowners … [they’ll say], ‘Oh really? I didn't even know anything about [forage fish],’ because they're not [species] they may be more accustomed to seeing, that are more charismatic," Todd says.
That invisibility can make both forage fish and the species they support harder to protect. But a new act in the U.S. Senate, introduced in April with rare bipartisan support, attempts to give forage fish more protection precisely by highlighting that ecosystem value.
The act, introduced by Sens. Richard Blumenthal, D-Connecticut, and Roy Blunt, R-Missouri, would mandate that the federal government’s eight regional fisheries councils consider the needs, status and ecosystem value of forage fish or their predators in fisheries management plans. It would also require an official definition of forage fish. The country’s current primary legislation governing fisheries management doesn’t even include the phrase “forage fish.”
In some ways, experts say, the act shows how progressive and cautious Pacific Northwestern fisheries have been: The act would ask other regions to do things managers on the West Coast already do.
“I think our state and federal management deserves some credit for early thinking and recognizing that these small fish are actually really important for the health of the whole system,” says Trina Bayard, director of bird conservation at Audubon Washington.
Many groups play roles in managing fisheries in and near Washington. The U.S. is responsible for all waters off the country’s coast from three to 200 miles off the shore, and collaborates with regional, state and tribal governments on management here. In 1998, Washington made waves by introducing a forage fish management plan that acknowledged their ecosystem roles. In 2013, the Pacific Fishery Management Council adopted its own Fisheries Ecosystem Plan to head off unregulated harvesting of any as-yet-unmanaged forage fish species. In 2016, the National Marine Fisheries Service issued new regional regulations for the PFMC that required consideration of “ecosystem component species” in fisheries’ management plans, as a means to protect those unmanaged forage fish species.
But forage fish still struggle in or near Washington waters, and with many species’ statuses ambiguous, fisheries managers can’t fully account for their needs or ecosystem impacts when making decisions.
And that incomplete data reflects both the lack of resources and mental space society at large assigns to valuing and protecting these "uncharismatic” species.
“Our intent may already be — sort of at least on paper — well ahead of some other parts of the country,” Todd says. “But there's no doubt that we have some data gaps that would make us probably smarter in terms of how we manage specific fish species, with an understanding of their role in the overall ecosystem.”
A dearth of data
Incomplete data about fish — how many, how heavy, where — impacts management decisions.
“Without that information, we might draw bad conclusions and actually direct our policy in the wrong direction, because we're only looking at a small piece of the ecosystem,” says Dionne of the Department of Fish and Wildlife.
The state has looked at that black hole of data as a reason for restrictive fishery regulations rather than an excuse to allow more commercial activity. “We just really don’t know whether the stock is in a healthy state or a depleted state,” says Lorna Wargo, a senior fisheries manager at Fish and Wildlife who focuses on coastal waters and chairs the Pacific Fishery Management Council’s coastal pelagic species management team.
A bill putting weight behind scientific recommendations at the regional council level could spur the data collection necessary to fill that black hole.
“The PFMC has already taken steps to protect forage fish species, but this is going to help operationalize [those steps],” Audubon Washington’s Bayard says. “It's going to help bring science to bear in setting those harvest limits and help make those protections more consistent across the whole country for a greater ecosystem impact. Birds especially don't exist regionally, so what happens in one fishery doesn't necessarily establish their safety everywhere.”
What distinguishes forage fish isn’t consistent everywhere, but generally, they're small, schooling fish that become prey for larger predatory wildlife. “Even within the scientific and management communities, there's still some debate about what qualifies as a forage fish,” Dionne says. It can be location dependent: In Puget Sound, it’s usually “finfish” with backbones. But on the coasts, squid and krill are also functionally forage species.
According to a 1998 management document, Washington officially manages seven forage fish species: Pacific sand lance, Pacific herring, surf smelt, northern anchovies, eulachon, Pacific sardines and longfin smelt. Regionally, the PFMC’s Fishery Management Plan covers northern anchovy, market squid, Pacific sardine, jack mackerel and Pacific mackerel. Several species, including Pacific herring and jacksmelt, are merely monitored.
When you really sit down to think about forage fish diversity in Washington waters, Wargo says, “it gets into, I would say 100 [species] altogether. But we're not managing or trying to even gather information on all of those.”
It’s hard to say how any of them are doing.
“I'd say that one of our strongest weaknesses in our fisheries management and forage fish management generally is ... if there isn't a commercial fishery targeting a species, generally, we don't have the resources to go after abundance estimates that track trends,” Dionne says. Understanding how multiple species’ populations fluctuate relative to each other when we only track a few fisheries remains a challenge.
“I would say in sort of the inland marine waters like the Salish Sea, we know a fair amount about herring. We know a C-minus amount when it comes to smelt, and probably a D-plus amount when it comes to sand lance,” says Dr. Tim Essington, a professor in the University of Washington’s School of Aquatic and Fishery Sciences. The latter two, he says, are incredibly hard to study relative to herring, because they spend a lot of their life in the sand.
The state’s herring fishery has generally declined since it opened in the 1970s. Herring biomass jumped a whopping 235% last year relative to 2019, but the Puget Sound Partnership’s Vital Signs report notes the four-year average of herring biomass is still below the state’s target. That fishery would close if fishermen harvested more than 10% of the adult spawning biomass. (For what it’s worth, Washingtonians harvested substantially less herring last year than usual.)
“These stocks have some pretty astounding ability to boom and bust,” says Dionne, who believes those cycles happen because of fluctuating ocean conditions and environmental factors rather than fisheries management.
Tribes are also harvesting less. “The [Suquamish] tribe’s harvest of forage fish, primarily herring, in Puget Sound has been very limited in recent decades, and mainly subsistence when it does occur because of low abundances,” Todd says.
The other significant commercial fishery in Puget Sound is surf smelt. “To be honest, we actually don't have enough information to even know how many are out there,” Dionne says. Even though historic harvests have been up to 120,000 pounds per year, Dionne says, the quota is currently 60,000 pounds.
There are no official state estimates for northern anchovy or sand lance. A possible anchovy boom starting in 2016 is likely over, based on some beach seining results; the state of Washington hasn’t done a formal assessment of anchovy on the West Coast since the 1970s, Wargo says. Fishermen and researchers have reported evidence of an increase in sand lance populations.
Pacific mackerel have also been at low levels for years, Wargo says, and there isn’t a significant fishery there. A 2020 PFMC review of coastal species (hampered by less frequent data collection during the pandemic) found krill numbers remain low, and coastal Pacific sardine capture essentially halved between 2017 and 2018. Meanwhile, market squid are hovering at slightly below average levels. (There is a commercial fishery for squid.)
Sardines are relatively better studied, but the state closed its sardine fishery in 2015. Two years ago, Washington declared sardines overfished.
Data that establishes population size informs a host of other things, including habitat protections.
A 2016 document on forage fish nearshore habitat established that development had degraded “substantial amounts” of it. “Given widespread privatization of tidelands in the Puget Sound basin, forage fish spawning habitat preservation will increasingly depend on the application of regulations to private property,” the authors wrote.
Structures like seawalls and bulkheads, as well as fill-in in intertidal areas, make habitat unusable by either burying or removing access to spawning grounds, and preventing the erosion necessary to create the gently sloping habitats these fish rely on. Beaches with documented spawning get more protection, and efforts to “de-armor” shorelines are picking up in Puget Sound, Todd says, but “so much more work is needed.”
So what can be done?
A U.S. Senate act like the one in question would be most useful, Wargo says, if it passed with funding for data collection that science committees deem most in need. “You can have a lot of policy but without [funding] it's just really good ideas,” says Wargo. Currently, the act doesn’t have funding attached.
Meanwhile, NOAA, the state and tribal partners are already working to reduce some of the aforementioned data gaps.
In 2019, NOAA Fisheries released a five-year roadmap for integrating ecosystem science into West Coast fisheries management. The second guiding principle of that plan is to improve understanding of ecosystems and develop ecosystem status reports.
The state Department of Fish and Wildlife started working with NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center and a commercial fishing consortium in 2018 to equip vessels with acoustic survey equipment and host Fish and Wildlife biologists on board. “My hope is that that will give us an index of abundance that will tell us, is the trend up or down? And I think that would be useful in terms of understanding salmon population health,” Wargo says.
Some populations of forage fish are already federally listed under the Endangered Species Act, including the eulachon in the Columbia River Basin.
The Suquamish Tribe reached out to the state recently to help restart an acoustic trawl survey of herring prespawn areas. That survey happened every year for decades until it ran out of funding in 2010.
Todd says the tribe finally secured funding to restart the survey this year through the Puget Sound Recovery Fund.
One common way that researchers estimate forage fish population levels is by analyzing the composition of predators’ diets. But this method isn’t as accurate as real-time stock assessments and don’t necessarily tell everything about ecosystem dynamics that dedicated surveys might.
Researchers have recently also begun looking for ways to better share data across agencies and projects, Zamon says, like figuring out how to modernize precomputer datasets, or extract new information from them. “People recognize there's limited resources, and we need to make the most of what we already have in hand,” she says.
While data will ultimately help preserve forage fish populations, Dionne says focusing on fisheries could give the impression that fisheries are the problem. To his mind, at least in the Pacific Northwest, they’re not.
“We’ve got a very conservative approach to fishing. And we see major booms and busts associated with natural fluctuations or environmental drivers that are not at all related to the fisheries,” he says. “I would just caution that, if we think that we're going to address this problem by changing our fisheries management, that's not the case.
“It's going to be a much more holistic approach, looking at the ecosystem processes, what toxins we’re putting into the water, the habitat degradation, climate change — all those elements need to be understood.”