Opinion

By Protecting Forage Fish, Oregon Can Help Boost Ocean Health

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It’s not every day that representatives of sport fishing, commercial fishing, and conservation organizations can find common ground. Yet when it comes to maintaining a cornerstone of a healthy Pacific Ocean, the three of us are in full agreement. While we may have differing views on some fishery management policies, we know that a productive ocean benefits everyone—from those of us who invest and participate in sustainable fishing practices to those who value healthy marine and coastal ecosystems.

That’s why we support Oregon’s proposed plan to conserve several species of forage fish in state-managed marine waters within 3 miles of shore.

Forage fish, such as sand lance and smelt, eat plankton and then form large schools—often called “bait balls”—that provide a critical food source for seabirds, marine mammals, and the larger fish sought by sport and commercial fishermen. The Oregon Forage Fish Management Plan proposes preventing new commercial fishing in state waters on six broad groups of forage fish species until fishery managers assess whether such fishing can be done sustainably and without harming the ecosystem or our existing fisheries. None of the six groups is currently targeted by fishermen. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission will consider whether to adopt the plan during its Sept. 2 meeting in Welches.

Oregon’s proposal would complement action by federal fishery managers, finalized this spring, to conserve these forage fish species in U.S. waters, from 3 to 200 miles off the entire West Coast.

We believe that it’s critical to extend these forage fish protections to our state-managed ocean waters because both predators and prey often cluster close to shore. That’s where salmon and steelhead make the transition from freshwater to saltwater, where marine mammals tend to congregate, and where seabirds such as the marbled murrelet forage from coastal headlands.

From the standpoint of the men and women who earn their living from commercial fishing, safeguarding these unfished forage species is not just a forward-looking conservation measure; it’s also a way to protect fishing opportunity and fishermen’s investments by keeping our marine ecosystems healthy and resilient. Although many forage species are fished heavily elsewhere around the world, Oregon’s fishing fleets do not target the species that would be protected by the new plan. The Oregon forage fish plan recognizes the vital role these species play in nourishing commercially and recreationally valuable fish such as salmon, albacore tuna, and lingcod. It’s just common sense to safeguard our unfished prey species unless and until science can demonstrate that some level of carefully managed fishing would not harm our marine ecosystems or our existing fisheries.

Oregon’s proposal, which was developed following input from a broad range of stakeholders, shows that diverse interests can come together and, by supporting protection of these unfished species, help bolster the health of our ocean—a public resource treasured by all of us.

Oregon has a long history of conserving its natural heritage. Whether it’s through the bottle bill, conservation of farmland, or maintaining public access to our beaches, Oregon has often led the nation in making sure that our shared resources are managed wisely. In that vein, Oregon’s representatives to the Pacific Fishery Management Council deserve credit for their leadership in developing forage fish protections in federal waters off our coast. Now, it’s time for Oregon fishery managers to move forward by adopting complementary measures in state marine waters. Doing so now, with broad public support for these safeguards, will protect a healthy ocean and add to the legacy that Oregonians can proudly pass on to future generations.

Mike Okoniewski is the Alaska regional manager and fishery policy adviser for the Pacific Seafood Group, headquartered in Clackamas. Norm Ritchie represents the Association of Northwest Steelheaders in Milwaukie. And Paul Shively directs West Coast marine conservation efforts for The Pew Charitable Trusts in Portland.

This piece was previously published in The Oregonian.

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