Time to Protect Pacific Forage Fish

I learned long ago that it pays to plan ahead before I hit the water for a day of fishing.

Knowing the tides, watching the weather, and reading the fishing blogs for the latest intelligence can make all the difference.

Similarly, my time at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and on Capitol Hill taught me that planning ahead and being proactive pays off when it comes to managing our nation's fisheries. The Pacific Fishery Management Council could get ahead of the curve in September, when it will weigh the fate of forage fish that nourish the big fish that many of us love to catch and eat.

As I've discussed previously, these types of small fish, such as sardines and anchovies, serve as an essential source of nourishment for larger fish, including the wild salmon and tuna that are popular with anglers, chefs, and consumers. Forage fish also are consumed by other wildlife, from whales to seabirds, making them a vital part of the marine food web.

The Pacific council recently acted to protect an important species of forage fish, Pacific saury, by recommending that NOAA establish interim protection for them. The action sets the stage for the council to begin enacting longer-term protections for these and other forage fish that are not now included in a federal fisheries management plan.

In September, the council has a great opportunity to begin establishing long-term protection for important forage species that are not yet being fished. These species, which include sand lance and various kinds of smelts, are fished extensively elsewhere in the world and are used in a variety of products, such as feed for livestock and farmed fish. Protecting them will give policymakers a chance to analyze the potential impact on marine ecosystems to determine whether industrial-scale fishing can begin.

The Pacific council, which is on record as recognizing the importance of forage fish to marine ecosystems, set a goal of prohibiting unregulated fishing for these species in Pacific waters. I hope that they will now translate that goal into strong regulatory protection. After all, placing vulnerable forage species into an appropriate fishery management plan is the simplest way to prohibit new forage fisheries until the council can evaluate how removing prey would affect larger fish and the overall resilience of marine ecosystems.

Bringing important forage species under management before commercial fishing begins, rather than reacting to problems after the fact, is an approach with widespread public support. Over the past two years, the council heard from organizations representing the commercial fishing industry, sport fishermen, seafood suppliers, eco-tourism businesses, birding organizations, elected leaders, and conservation groups from around the region. All called for stronger safeguards for forage species. The council also received more than 50,000 comments from the general public encouraging protection of forage fish as a crucial food source for salmon, orca whales, and other iconic wildlife.

We already know that protecting forage fish works to ensure sustainable fisheries. In the 1990s, regional fisheries managers in Alaska preemptively protected many forage species with the support of the commercial fishing industry. They acted because they understood the importance of these small fish and the local businesses and jobs that depend on them, and were concerned about their growing exploitation. Now the Pacific council can extend similar protections along the entire West Coast.

When you're out on the water, timing is critical. Subtle fluctuations in the weather or tides can change where fish are located. That's why I take time to research and plan upfront. This allows me to act quickly when I see the prospect of a great day of fishing.

Just as fishermen wouldn't leave the dock unprepared, the Pacific council can ensure that plenty of forage fish are left in the water to sustain thriving marine ecosystems. That's why I hope it won't let this opportunity get away.