For the first time in decades, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is adding a forage fish to its slate: chub mackerel. It will also be the council’s first new fishery management plan since it committed to protecting more than 50 forage fish species from unsustainable fishing.
Before the council created the unmanaged forage fish rule, which went into effect last year, the commercial fishing industry could choose to target forage fish in the Mid-Atlantic at any time, without catch limits. That meant overfishing could happen on a forage species before managers even knew that fishing had begun.
When council staff discovered that the catch of chub mackerel had skyrocketed to more than 5 million pounds in 2013—almost 100 times more than the 55,000 pounds landed just a few years before—the idea that other forage fish could also be at risk became clearer.
No scientific evaluation existed on whether this catch level was sustainable for the chub mackerel population so the council, with broad support from stakeholders, began to create a management plan. And this month, it announced that it is seeking input from the public on its draft plan, which includes the first catch limit for chub mackerel. Here’s why it matters and what you can do.
While the council is considering setting the catch limit for chub mackerel at 2,300 metric tons, market demand could create pressure to raise this limit much higher. Atlantic chub mackerel and their cousin, Pacific chub mackerel, together comprise one of the largest fisheries in the world, with Japan, China, and African countries the primary importers. But the size of chub mackerel’s population in the western Atlantic Ocean is unknown, and there is limited scientific information about its role as prey to the region’s predators. There is reason to be concerned about sustainability: Other forage species in the region, like Atlantic mackerel, are pursued by enormous, industrial-scale trawlers and are not well managed.
But if managers proceed with caution, the chub mackerel fishery can be sustainable while supporting other fisheries and the wider ocean ecosystem.
Sport fishermen in America, especially those who participate in billfish tournaments, know that major trophy fish, like marlin and swordfish, follow chub mackerel along the coast. In June and July, when these tournaments are underway, recreational fishermen track game fish as they chase chub mackerel into underwater canyons. The population of chub mackerel is sure to affect the size and numbers of these marine predators. But not enough data have been collected to understand how many chub mackerel are needed to sustain predators, or to determine the trade-offs between catching chub mackerel or leaving them in the water to feed more valuable fish and marine species.
When fishery managers set catch limits, they rely first on the acceptable biological catch, or ABC. To determine this figure, scientists estimate the size of the fish population and then calculate how many could be removed in a year without driving down the next year’s population.
Under U.S. law, once scientists identify a species’ ABC, managers then must set the “optimum yield”: the catch level that would be best for the nation. Managers must weigh the question of “best for whom?” and consider the ecological, economic, social, and cultural effects of any choice.
Fisheries science and the council’s guidance agree that managers should leave enough forage fish to sustain predator populations at desired levels. Given that chub mackerel are food for valuable predators, it is important that commercial fishermen not remove too many of these prey fish from the ocean. That is why The Pew Charitable Trusts will be recommending that managers set catch limits cautiously for chub mackerel, and I hope you will join us in asking for the same.
The council will make its decision in February, and the public has until mid-January to weigh in on how chub mackerel should be managed. Here are four easy ways to ensure your voice is heard:
The council deserves credit for drafting a management plan for chub mackerel in line with the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, which has helped end overfishing and rebuild many marine fish populations nationwide.
As the council moves forward, it should follow the conservation-minded approach it committed to for forage fish by collecting enough scientific information to answer key questions about chub mackerel and setting catch limits that account for scientific uncertainty and protect the species’ value as forage for predators.
Joseph Gordon manages campaigns for The Pew Charitable Trusts’ U.S. oceans program in the Northeast.