Little Fish, Big Celebration: Concern and Hope on the Pacific Coast

Ocean conservationist Sylvia Earle, Ph.D., hosts a first-of-its-kind town hall event

Little Fish, Big Celebration: Concern and Hope on the Pacific Coast

Dr. Sylvia Earle looks on as panelist Steve Marx explains Pew's effort to expand an ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management by NOAA Fisheries and other federal agencies.

© Natalie Downe -

On Oct. 27, more than 200 people gathered at the Aquarium of the Bay in San Francisco for an unprecedented forum on forage fish protection in California. The event, “Little Fish, Big Deal,” featured presentations from distinguished experts who advocated for a broader move toward a big-picture, ecosystem-based approach to managing forage fish—small, schooling fish that provide food for larger fish, seabirds, and other marine life—and shared successes and challenges in that pursuit. The Pew Charitable Trusts and its partners, Audubon California, Earthjustice, the Farallon Institute, the Marine Mammal Center, Mission Blue, Oceana, and Ocean Conservancy, sponsored the event.

As director of Pacific Ocean conservation at Pew, it was my privilege to open the forum and introduce the event’s facilitator, Sylvia Earle, Ph.D., National Geographic Explorer-in-Residence, founder of Mission Blue, and former chief scientist of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Association. A few years ago, the thought of a couple hundred people gathering on a rainy night to learn about forage fish would have been unimaginable. The enthusiasm I saw for this event speaks volumes about the advocacy and persistence shown by many groups and about the government staff and decision-makers who have advanced forage fish protections in the past year.

“Little fish make a big impact, not just on the ocean but on the world,” Earle told the audience. “[They] power the whales, power the birds, power all the other creatures. They’re the middlemen between [the ocean’s smaller organisms] and the larger creatures that can’t get to the plankton.” She also noted that the attention the event drew, from both the public and the expert scientific community, was “cause for hope” for forage fish.

Speaking on a panel on the role of forage fish in sustaining healthy ecosystems, Bill Sydeman, Ph.D., director of the Farallon Institute, highlighted the decline of the northern anchovy, which he called “the most important fish in the sea.”

Jeff Boehm, a veterinarian and executive director of the Marine Mammal Center, added that the drastic drop in anchovy numbers off the U.S. West Coast was driving high starvation rates among some predators, particularly sea lions. Experts estimate that anchovy biomass off of California totaled less than 20,000 metric tons from 2009 to 2011, a drop of 99 percent from 2005.

Boehm said that while a range of issues contributed to the crisis, including warming waters and growing sea lion populations, “if forage fisheries are healthy, those other issues are going to be … easier for [predators] to overcome.”

Geoff Shester, Ph.D., California program director for Oceana, applauded the state’s commitment to ecosystem-based fisheries management. “The same things we might to do to rebuild our fish stocks—protecting habitat, minimizing bycatch, and protecting the forage base—are good for the ocean and the ecosystem. We don’t have to choose” between improving fishing conditions for the future and protecting the marine environment.

As an example of that, Anna Weinstein, marine program director of California Audubon, shared the encouraging story of how fishermen, conservationists, and government staff joined forces to protect the unique urban San Francisco Bay Pacific herring fishery. “It is possible for people and forage fish to successfully coexist, as long as we identify the threats, address them, and steward these fish into the future,” Weinstein said.

The final speaker, Steve Marx, my colleague at Pew, provided a detailed explanation of ecosystem-based fishery management and discussed how we are working to advance those strategies at the federal and state levels, including to protect northern anchovy. In a healthy ocean, Marx said, “the structure and function of the marine food web is protected for the long term. These forage fish conservation efforts that you’ve heard about here tonight are the critical piece in getting that done.”

At the reception following the panel, many attendees expressed their excitement about the breadth of the presentations and about forage fish conservation. Shester observed, “I thought a whole story really came together that these are not just separate issues [about] sea lions or common murres or pelicans. They’re all connected, and the common theme is forage fish and the marine ecosystem.

We still have work to do, on the West Coast and beyond, to ensure that protections are in place for all forage fish species, but this event is testimony to how far we’ve come. These little fish are truly a big deal.

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