A Growing Movement to Protect Little Fish

Amid growing scientific evidence pointing to the importance of abundant populations of small schooling fish to well-functioning marine ecosystems, fishery managers on the Atlantic and Pacific coasts moved this month toward protecting prey fish.

The Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission voted in November to set new management benchmarks to increase the population of menhaden. Menhaden are a key source of protein for important sport and commercial fish along with marine mammals and seabirds along the Eastern Seaboard.

The action highlights growing recognition of the importance of these oil-rich, small schooling fish as the linchpin of a vibrant and well-functioning marine food web. On the Pacific coast, forage species such as sardines, anchovies, and krill feed on microscopic plants and animals drifting near the surface and then are eaten by larger predators.

Recently, the Pacific Fishery Management Council agreed to develop a management framework for critical forage species that are currently unprotected and for which fisheries could start up at any time. However, the council put off the next step—to develop those protections—until the middle of next year at the earliest.

“We're gratified that the council acknowledged the importance of forage species to a healthy and balanced marine food web, and we agree that new fisheries should not be opened until we know they can be managed with a rigorous ecosystem-based approach,” said Paul Shively, manager of Pew's Pacific Fish Conservation Campaign. “We look forward to the council taking firm action to stand up for the fishermen and coastal communities that depend on a productive marine ecosystem.”

Small schooling fish populations face increasing pressure around the world, since these prey species serve largely as feed for a booming aquaculture industry. As it stands, fishing could develop at any time on currently unmanaged forage species such as Pacific saury, sand lance, or certain smelts. Fishery managers are given only 90 days' notice before they can act to stop fishing.

That's a recipe for trouble, according to fishing and conservation groups that testified before the council Nov. 6. The Pew Environment Group recently delivered a stack of postcards from almost 100 commercial fishermen calling on the Pacific Fishery Management Council to protect the baitfish that are key to productive fisheries on salmon, tuna, and groundfish.

Although progress has been made, more action must be taken to protect the little fish that are of such big importance. 

Media Contact: Erik Robinson

Topics: Oceans, Environment

Project: Pacific Ocean Conservation