West Coast fishery leaders are convening this week in Portland, Oregon for their annual meeting to establish ocean fishing limits for salmon. This time, however, the Pacific Fishery Management Council will also consider its very first fishery ecosystem plan that will account for the impact of fishing not just on one species, but the entire marine food web.
The plan’s first concrete initiative proposes to improve the conservation of prey fish on which salmon depend during their years in the ocean. The adoption and prompt implementation of this initiative would be welcome news for fishermen, chefs, and countless others across the Northwest who depend upon healthy and abundant salmon runs.
Such species as sardines, herring, and eulachon—commonly known as forage fish—make up the “menu” for much of the wildlife in the Pacific Ocean. These small schooling fish occupy a crucial midpoint in the ocean food web, eating tiny plants and animals drifting near the surface and then in turn being consumed by seabirds, marine mammals, and fish such as salmon and tuna that we like to eat. Although forage fish may be small, the consequences of mismanaging this crucial resource can be huge.
The West Coast sardine fishery, memorably depicted in John Steinbeck’s novel Cannery Row, collapsed in the 1950s. It took decades for the population to recover and it has now rebounded to the point that it once again supports a fishery. Some experts, however, have begun to be concerned about the rapid growth in the amount of fish being caught. By adopting an ecosystem plan now, though, the council can ensure that many of the lesser well known species of forage fish will avoid the boom-and-bust management cycle sardines historically faced.
When it comes to predicting the number of adult salmon annually returning to the Columbia River basin, scientists consistently stress one governing factor: the amount of food available for these fish in the ocean. This is why the ecosystem plan up for adoption next week is so important. The plan’s first tangible initiative would extend management protection to currently unfished forage species—like saury, sandlance and certain kinds of smelts—before another industrial-scale fishery starts up.
Not far from the conference room in which council members will be meeting, an armada of boats is visible on the Columbia, each vying for prized chinook salmon. This wouldn’t be possible without healthy populations of forage fish. The council now has a choice. It can risk allowing unregulated fishing to expand to new forage species, or put in place a process that ensures enough stay in the ocean as vital food to sustain the other valuable fish and marine wildlife that form the basis of our coastal economy.
The council has a chance to move ecosystem-based management from theory into practice. And protecting the small, yet vital, forage fish that chinook and other species need to grow and thrive is a great place to start.
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