MenhadenSave the whales? Check. Save the sharks? Check. Save the menhaden?

Save the what?

Americans have shown they will respond to calls to preserve imperiled species. Usually the animals evoke some kind of emotional pull: They are cuddly or fierce, powerful or heartbreakingly fragile, or at least familiar.

But menhaden? Until recent years, few had heard of this small, oily fish, once found in great numbers along the Atlantic coast from Maine to Florida. It isn't found on any menu or at the neighborhood grocery's seafood counter. Due primarily to overfishing by commercial fleets, stocks of menhaden had dropped to 10 percent of historic levels, but its plight was not on many people's radar.

But thanks in large part to efforts led by the Pew Environment Group, awareness of the value of menhaden, and other species collectively known as “forage fish,” has grown greatly. Using a wealth of scientific research and working with other groups, Pew campaigns have helped elevate understanding of this key part of the marine ecosystem and have driven action to preserve these vulnerable species.

Small Fish, Big Role“The issue has been around for a while—the Pew Oceans Commission identified preservation of forage fish as a problem in 2003, and other groups have been working on it in various capacities,” said Paul Shively, who manages Pew's Pacific Forage Fish Campaign out of Portland, Ore. “But the issue has gone from zero to 60 in the last few years.”

Now media reports regularly emphasize the importance of menhaden, herring, smelt, anchovies, sardines and other species—both as prized prey of larger, well-known predators such as tuna, salmon, humpback whales and striped bass, but also as the source of protein-rich fish oils and a major component of fish meal, pet food and fertilizer. Increasingly, the connection is being made: When stocks of forage fish drop, populations of larger fish, marine mammals and seabirds often fall as well.

The efforts by Pew's campaigns are paying off not only in increasing public awareness, but also in getting catch limits established for these fish. Last November, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, a state-federal regulatory body, voted to cut the harvest of menhaden by as much of 37 percent. Pew's Atlantic Menhaden Campaign had pushed vigorously for such action, reaching out to commission members and the public with science-based data. “We were able to show through our campaign's graphics how stocks of menhaden had dropped so much over 40 to 50 years,” said Peter Baker, director of Pew's Northeast Fisheries Campaign. “We could ascribe the importance of menhaden to things that are important to people. Menhaden is not something they eat, but people eat striped bass and bluefish, and those fish, and birds and marine mammals, eat menhaden.”

Baker also directs the Atlantic Herring Campaign, seeking protections for another oily fish that not only is a staple of bigger predators but also feels pressure from commercial fishing interests. “The industrial fleets have a lot of money and a lot of influence,” Baker said. “But we've worked closely with recreational and commercial fishermen in New England. They understand what we say about preserving the herring population.”

Shively said the increased demand for byproducts of forage fish is a significant reason their populations are imperiled. “The big concern comes down to the increasing demand for protein: chicken food, bait, fish meal, fish oils and the like,” he said. “If we keep fishing the most northernmost stocks of sardines at the current rate, for instance, a recent study suggests we could see another collapse of sardine stocks like there was in the 1940s and 1960s. Commercial fishing is a huge industry. If we talked about human consumption of forage fish, particularly with most U.S.-caught forage fish, we wouldn't have much to talk about.”

In the Southeastern United States, adequate prey protections are an important consideration in rebuilding depleted fish populations, such as red snapper, amberjack, gag grouper and black sea bass. Pew's Southeast Fish Conservation Campaign is working to unravel the complex interactions between forage fish and the species that matter most to recreational anglers and commercial fishermen. It is educating anglers, the public and policy makers about the importance of forage fish for the overall economy and health of the ocean ecosystem.

Of particular concern is mullet. Southeastern festivals still pay tribute to the mullet, which was one of the most widely caught fish in the South Atlantic in the early 1900s. But the population has dropped to as low as 25 percent of historic levels. Mullet are a favorite bait for fishermen targeting dozens of gamefish, and also serve an important role in the marine ecosystem as food for species such as cobia, bluefish and amberjacks.

"We want to prevent problems before they ever happen. We make the economic and ecological argument that these fish are more important in the water than in the net."

-Steve Ganey, Director, Regional Fisheries Initiatives

On the West Coast, a key focus of the Pacific Forage Fish Campaign is to work with the Pacific Fishery Management Council to strengthen safeguards for already protected forage species, such as sardines, and take unprotected ones, such as sandlances and some smelts, “off the table,” said Steve Ganey, director of Pew's Regional Fisheries Initiatives. “We want to prevent problems before they ever happen. We make the economic and ecological argument that these fish are more important in the water than in the net.”

Ganey, also based in Portland, put together the forage fish initiatives in 2008. “Our strategy had two key goals over five years,” he said. “One, we wanted to end or prevent overfishing of a number of stressed species, such as red snapper and some groupers. Second, we wanted to prevent the expansion of forage fishing until we could apply an ecosystem-based management system.”

Such a system, he said, “forces you to think more broadly. It's not a panacea, but it very clearly forces everyone to think about the ecosystem first.”

Ganey and Shively stressed that such a far-reaching approach has several benefits. “All too often, fisheries management is a reaction to a crisis, such as when a species' stock has fallen to dangerous levels,” Ganey said. “That can be because of a lack of management or science, or extremely poor management. We're saying to policy makers, do your science and planning upfront, and if we're not fishing for a species now, don't do it until we have the science.”

In the case of forage fish, traditional management approaches might not be effective because most species have “high catchability,” said a recent report by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force. (The task force is part of the Lenfest Ocean Program, a Lenfest Foundation project that is directed by Pew.) Many forage fish travel closely together in huge spherical schools, called “bait balls,” and thus are easily captured by commercial fishing boats.

“You can't manage forage fish the same way you would, say halibut or Atlantic cod,” Ganey said, adding that “We've picked forage fish as that first step in approaching an ecosystem-based management system.”

He cites earlier successful efforts in managing forage fish, such as Alaska's limiting of pollock catches in the late 1990s and recent catch quotas for Antarctic krill, which are tiny, shrimp-like crustaceans that serve as food for larger species and also are prized as a source for nutritional supplements. The Pew-led Antarctic Krill Conservation Project played a key role in the establishment of the limits. (The project got a boost last fall with the release of the animated film Happy Feet 2. Brad Pitt and Matt Damon provided the voices for two characters—Pitt was Will the Krill and Damon was Bill the Krill—which certainly didn't hurt in raising krill's profile with the public.)

Ganey acknowledged that “selling” forage fish remains somewhat problematic. “It is a unique challenge to tell their story and explain why they are important,” he said. “They're not charismatic species, and we're also advancing the issue of ecosystem-based management, which is new to many people. But hardcore anglers get it and ecotourism businesses get it. There's still resistance from the industrial fishing fleets. Still, I think more and more people are receptive to what we are saying.”

Shively sees a shift in attitude at the management level, too. “Almost every meeting of the Pacific Fishery Management Council has become an important arena of discussion about forage fish,” he said.

And Baker, whose father was a commercial fisherman in Alaska, agrees: “The old-school mentality that the ocean is boundless and we'll never outfish it is slowly receding.”