In Our View: Small Forage Fish a Big Deal

Proactive protection efforts being studied could have an effect on entire food chain

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The Pacific Fishery Management Council is expected to have a big conversation this week about some small things. Well, small in size but large in importance.

As part of a weeklong series of meetings, council members are scheduled Thursday morning to tackle the issue of “forage fish” — small creatures such as sardines, smelt, anchovies and lantern fish that don’t grab headlines like salmon or tuna but play a crucial role in the food chain. As environmental consultant Brett Sommermeyer wrote in an opinion piece for The News Guard in Lincoln City, Ore., “They eat tiny plants and animals drifting near the surface, then form huge ‘bait balls’ of protein that are consumed by everything else above them on the food web.”

In other words, a depletion of forage fish can negatively impact large commercial fish, which influences both the food supply for humans and a crucial aspect of the local economy. According to The Pew Charitable Trusts: “Forage fish are a big deal because they’re a critical food source for countless other animals that people love to watch, catch, or eat.”

The Pacific Fishery Management Council includes representatives from Washington, Oregon, California and Idaho (because ocean-going salmon migrate there), and its members are tasked with the nearly impossible challenge of managing fishing concerns and ensuring that a local industry is sustainable for further generations. The PFMC has adopted a Fisheries Ecosystem Plan that was put forth last year, and it now is looking to adopt concrete measures for implementing the plan.

Among the suggested avenues is providing protection for forage fish, a rather novel approach considering that there is little active harvesting of such fish. According to Sommermeyer, about 90 percent of the forage fish caught worldwide are reduced to fishmeal or fish oil for feeding chicken or farmed fish.

This often can leave the creatures as an afterthought when it comes to discussions of conservation, but the time has come for a firm action plan to be put into place. As Sommermeyer writes: “Many of the species in question have been targeted by large-scale fisheries elsewhere in the world, and the Council’s own Ecosystem Workgroup cites the ‘spectacular growth’ of global aquaculture as raising the likelihood for new forage fisheries here on the Pacific coast. The Council would be wise to put some basic conservation measures in place as soon as possible, rather than waiting until nets are already in the water to rein in a new fishery.”

Given the difficulty in balancing existing fisheries with conservation concerns (consider the ongoing debate over gillnetting), the need to be proactive regarding forage fish is clear.

Last year’s Fisheries Ecosystem Plan provided a unique approach to fishery management. Tim Roth, a deputy project leader for the federal Columbia River Fisheries Program in Vancouver, stressed at the time that previous management efforts failed to take a big-picture view of the issues involved. “As they were developed,” he told The Columbian, “they didn’t really look across the broad complexities of species and how they interacted.”

But, as most people can remember from their fifth-grade science classes, the food chain is a story of interaction between species. Tiny plants are eaten by tiny animals which are consumed by larger animals and so on. If any link is broken, the chain falters, and the creatures down the chain suffer. Protection of the animals near the front of the chain is crucial for the protection of all creatures, and the PFMC would be wise to act on that knowledge.