The Bottom Line: Big Opportunity for Pacific Fish

Note: This is a guest post from Lee Crockett, Director of U.S. Fisheries Campaigns at the Pew Environment Group.

Our nation’s West Coast is known worldwide for the rich and iconic marine life that can be found off its shores. In fact, countless tourists travel there every year just for a glimpse of a pod of migrating gray whales or the chance to catch a coho or king salmon in the wild.

These species and a host of other Pacific marine predators need to eat plenty of small fish to survive and thrive. In fact, to understand the well-being of an ocean ecosystem, one of the first steps is to measure the food supply upon which other, larger species depend.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) has a chance to do just that when it meets this November to guide the completion of its Fishery Ecosystem Plan. Nobody, however, wants a document that just gathers dust on a shelf. Embracing a new policy to measure the amount of prey in the water would be a huge step forward with benefits for numerous Pacific marine predators — from whales breeding off the sunny shores of San Diego to salmon foraging in the chilly waters of the Seattle area’s Puget Sound.

Small oil-rich fish such as sardines, anchovies and smelt—commonly known as forage fish—are the linchpin of the marine ecosystem along the West Coast. They eat tiny plants and animals drifting near the surface and, in turn, become prey for everything higher on the food web.

In June, the PFMC recognized the ecological importance of these fish when it set a goal of prohibiting new commercial fishing that targets forage species until there is proof that it won’t degrade the ecosystem. However, the council has delayed enacting actual protections for vulnerable forage species such as saury, sand lance and lanternfish. Instead, the PFMC is now pursuing a slower path that requires it to complete a Fishery Ecosystem Plan by March 2013 before moving on to protect currently unmanaged forage fish. So the council needs to make sure it finishes the plan on time.

We cannot afford to delay protections for these important prey species. Our oceans are under increasing environmental stress because of chronic problems such as water pollution and degradation of coastal habitat. Unlike these and other large-scale factors affecting ocean health, the PFMC has a say about fishing that impacts the prey base along the West Coast, and its members can take proactive measures to protect these little fish.

Worldwide, forage species account for more than a third of total marine fish landings by weight, with 90 percent turned into products such as animal feeds and nutritional supplements. Commercial interest in these small, oily fish is growing more intense.

In fact, an analysis done for the PFMC noted that the market for currently unfished forage species along the West Coast is likely to become even more attractive because of the “spectacular growth” of the global aquaculture industry. In other words, the need to feed carnivorous species such as farmed salmon and pen-fattened tuna could take the food supply away from fish swimming in the wild. That means the abundance of fish that supports both commercial and sports fishing, as well as a number of other sectors of the West Coast economy, is at risk.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council can’t control global market trends, but it can make forage fish a priority as the key link in a productive Pacific Ocean. The council should start by putting in place a system to measure and track the amount of prey in the water.


Related Stories:

The Bottom Line: Making U.S. Fisheries Work for Us

The Bottom Line: Historic Moment for Most Important Fish in America

The Bottom Line: A Solution to Protect Threatened Tuna


Food Web Illustration: Pew Environment Group


Carrie Anne Brown

thanks for sharing :)

Melania Padilla
Melania P5 years ago

Thanks for posting, I hope it is no too late!!!

Linda M.
Linda Adler5 years ago

I live on the Oregon Coast and the new move is wave energy. They are planning on installing massive walls out in our ocean to create more energy. How do you thing that will effect our marine life balance. It's my tax dollars and we are told to keep our attentions on land. Check out the link: Destroying our planet a few miles at a time

Danuta Watola
Danuta W5 years ago

Thanks for sharing

Andrew C.
Andrew C5 years ago

Thanks for the article.

Cindy Strousberg

Thank you

Randy Robertson
Randy Robertson5 years ago

Randy R continued: flourished. Barn swallows flew up and down the beach, Rare now! Beaches without the so-called excess had short or rare seaweeds. Rotting spawn made those seaweeds huge...places for small fish to hide. Salmon fry leave their rivers just as the herring hatch...abundant food and lots of salmon!!! The herring swim hundreds of miles to spawn on the inshore a pipeline of fuel for the whole eco-system. The herring are a vital link in the chain of things and it is in dire need of repair. Halt the roe fishery!!!!

Randy Robertson
Randy Robertson5 years ago

The herring roe fishery has to be stopped. They used to spawn in huge numbers and a lot of the used to break loose and get pushed up to the high tide line to rot and stink. Someone in fisheries figured that this was "excess" spawn and could be harvested and sold. As it decomposed, each high tide took a bit of the nutrients back to sea.The seaweeds and other sealife was vibrant. Sand flies laid eggs in it, shorebirds gorged on the maggots. Swallows and brant (sea geese)

J.L. A.
j A5 years ago

very important initiative!

Marlyse G.
Marlyse G5 years ago

tks for posting