A group of international scientists is recommending that fishing for what they call “forage fish,” including herring and anchovy, should be cut in half around the world to help save larger predator species like halibut and salmon.
The expert group of marine scientists, called the Lenforest Forage Fish Task Force, say their worldwide analysis of the science and management of forage fish populations, “Little Fish, Big Impact: Managing a crucial link in ocean food webs,” concluded that in most ecosystems at least twice as many of these species should be left in the ocean as is done now.
The scientist say a thriving marine ecosystem relies on plenty of forage fish. These small schooling fish are a crucial link in ocean food webs because they eat plankton, tiny plants and animals and are then preyed upon by animals such as penguins, whales, seals, puffins, and dolphins.
The task force says “forage fish” are primary food sources for many commercially and recreationally valuable fish found including salmon, halibut, tuna, striped bass, and cod.
The task force says that if “forage fish” are consumed by other commercially important species they are worth $11.3 billion. But if the “forage fish” are caught themselves, they only generate $5.6 billion as “direct catch.”
Forage fish are used in 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.
“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,” says Dr. Ellen K. Pikitch of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, who convened and led the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force.
“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.”
Small schooling fish are an important part of the ecosystem on both coasts of North America. Many marketable species on the Pacific coast feed on the forage fish, including as salmon, lingcod, Pacific hake, Pacific halibut, and spiny dogfish.
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, including UBC, 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.”