Protecting Forage Fish, the Little Heroes of Our Oceans

This is a guest post from Lee Crockett, director of U.S. Oceans at The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Most Americans don’t think about fisheries policy when eating fish. But in fact, the supply of popular species such as cod, tuna and salmon depends very much on how we manage them in the sea. If anglers, chefs and diners want to continue catching, cooking and eating fish, we need to change our policies so we can maintain the health of the small fish that nourish the larger ones.

Species such as herring, menhaden and sardines—commonly known as forage fish—make up the menu for much of the wildlife in our ocean. These schooling fish eat tiny plants and animals near the ocean’s surface. In turn, they are eaten by a host of other animals—including larger fish, seabirds and whales—making them a vital part of the marine food web. Studies have shown, for example, that forage fish can compose up to 70 percent of a king salmon’s diet.

Fishermen have long appreciated the relationship between forage fish and larger species, but over the past decade a growing body of research into the ecological roles of these small fish has added new scientific insights. This includes perhaps the most comprehensive study to date, conducted by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force: 13 eminent scientists convened by Stony Brook University’s Institute for Ocean Conservation Science.

The report from the task force’s three-year analysis, released in the spring of 2012, found that “globally, forage fish are twice as valuable in the water as in a net—contributing $11.3 billion by serving as food for other commercially important fish.” So to foster healthy ocean ecosystems where bluefin tuna and other depleted commercial and recreationally important species can thrive, our nation must enact consistent polices to ensure that enough forage fish are left in the water to sustain ocean wildlife.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which manages more than 100 species from California to Washington State, has already recognized the importance of forage fish to healthy marine ecosystems. The council voted unanimously in September 2013 to amend existing fishery management plans in order to “prohibit the development of new commercial fisheries” on forage species, such as sand lance and saury, that are not currently managed or monitored. This action builds on proactive steps that the North Pacific Fishery Management Council took in Alaska beginning in the 1990s to protect the food that key commercial species depend on in the region that council oversees.

Much remains to be done. But an impressive coalition of commercial fishermen, sport fishing organizations, ecotourism businesses, conservation groups and others has come together to ensure that the Pacific Fishery Management Council translates its goals into firm, enforceable policies. Progress in protecting key forage species in other parts of the country, however, has been opposed by certain commercial fishing interests and some state and federal fishery management officials. This jumble of conflicting state and federal policies on forage fish conservation should not continue.

As the Lenfest task force warned in its report, “Conventional management can be risky for forage fish because it does not adequately account for their wide population swings and high catchability. It also fails to capture the critical role of forage fish as food for marine mammals, seabirds, and commercially important fish such as tuna, salmon, and cod.”

So if we want to protect the future of blue marlin, Warsaw grouper and other depleted species, we need to ensure that these predators have ample forage fish to prey on. In addition to action by the regional fisheries councils, Congress should approve a uniform national approach to fisheries management that takes into account the health of marine ecosystems and the critical interactions between prey and predator species.

Forage fish populations in U.S. waters deserve proactive and consistent management that recognizes their unique role in supporting healthy oceans. This is a fundamental component of an ecosystem-based approach to fishery management. We have the science. Now we need the policies to take better care of these small but hugely important species that knit together the marine food web.

Note: This is the second article in a special series on managing U.S. fisheries using an ecosystem-based approach. Read the previous article: Theres a Better Way to Protect Our Ocean Ecosystems.

More About the Photo: A striped bass chases some menhaden. To learn more about efforts to protect Atlantic menhaden visit


Jim Ven
Jim Ven2 years ago

thanks for the article.

Carrie-Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Janice Thompson
Janice Thompson3 years ago

We are finally learning to observe as well as help.

Jennifer H.
Jennifer H3 years ago

Maybe some of these points should have been brought up in the article about Killing off Sea Lions on the Columbia. The low population of forage fish would also be a reason why salmon numbers are low. Both are man made problems being blamed on sea lions and birds.

Either way, controls and regulations have to be enacted to protect all the sea creatures from our recklessness and irresponsibility.

Steve Trammell
Steve Trammell3 years ago

In order to protect our food supplies, policies need to be enacted that will safeguard the entire food chain. From the tiniest plankton to the forage fish and to the larger fish on our dinner plate, we need to insure a healthy sustainable ecosystem.

Val M.
Val M3 years ago


Liliana Garcia
Liliana Garcia3 years ago

Sorry for the typo. Never fish for fun. (My back space tab has been a little tricky for some time now.)
BTW, it's a good idea to have an in depth article on plankton and how it is faring right now.

Liliana Garcia
Liliana Garcia3 years ago

Thanks fir the article. Never fish for fun neither the little ones nor the big ones.
Azaima: Good point!

Luna starr
luna starr3 years ago

John C well said

Fred L.
Fred L3 years ago

Big ups, as always, to the Pew Charitable Trusts. Mahalo nui loa.