Better management needed for ‘small but significant species’
By Summit Voice
SUMMIT COUNTY — Preserving healthy ocean ecosystems requires cutting back on harvests of herring, anchovy and other small schooling fish that are a vital link in ocean food webs, according to a new report from an international task force.
The so-called forage fish eat plankton and are, in turn, food for bigger fish, as well as penguins, whales, seals, puffins, and dolphins. They are primary food sources for many commercially and recreationally valuable fish found around North America, such as salmon, tuna, striped bass, and cod.
“Traditionally we have been managing fisheries for forage species in a manner that cannot sustain the food webs, or some of the industries, they support,” said Dr. Ellen K. Pikitch of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, who recently led a comprehensive worldwide analysis of the science and management of forage fish populations to date.
The report concluded that in most ecosystems at least twice as many of these species should be left in the ocean as conventional practice.
“As three-fourths of marine ecosystems in our study have predators highly dependent on forage fish, it is economically and biologically imperative that we develop smarter management for these small but significant species,” Pikitch said.
These species play a growing role in the everyday lives of industrialized nations. Their demand in recent decades has greatly increased for use as fish meal and fish oil to feed farmed fish, pigs, and chickens that people consume on a regular basis. Fish oil is also used in nutritional supplements for humans.
Small schooling fish are an important part of the ecosystem on both coasts of North America. Many marketable species on the Pacific coast, such as salmon, lingcod, Pacific hake, Pacific halibut, and spiny dogfish, feed on them. A large number of seabird species relies on them as well, and research shows that the breeding success of the federally endangered California least tern may depend on the availability of local anchovy populations.
On the eastern seaboard, more menhaden are caught (by weight) than any other fish off the Atlantic coast. Taking out excessive amounts, however, means less food for tuna, bluefish, and striped bass ― as well as whales, dolphins, and seabirds – and affects fisheries and tourism industries from Maine to Florida.
“Around the globe, we’ve seen how removing too many forage fish can significantly affect predators and people who rely on that system’s resources for their livelihoods,” said Dr. Edward D. Houde, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Center for Environmental Science and task force member. “We need to be more precautionary in how we manage forage fish in ecosystems that we know very little about.”
Made up of 13 preeminent scientists with expertise in a wide range of disciplines, the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force was established to generate specific and practical advice to support better management of forage fish around the world. This group of experts, with support from the Lenfest Ocean Program, synthesized scientific research and other information about these species and conducted original simulation modeling to reach their conclusions.
“The Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force has provided guidance on how to prevent overfishing of these small prey species,” said Dr. P. Dee Boersma, professor and director of the Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels at the University of Washington and task force member. “Our hope is that fishery managers will put our recommendations into action to protect penguins, cod, whales, and a whole host of other creatures that need them to survive.”