Regional policymakers are expected to act today on an ecological plan that would mark a significant shift in the way West Coast fisheries are managed.
The years-in-the-making proposal aims to protect several species of forage fish that are often overlooked, but provide a crucial food source for salmon and other marine wildlife. The plan reflects a move toward more broad ecosystem-based management, rather than the species-by-species approach that characterized previous policy. The result could mean better fish runs on the Columbia River and other Northwest waterways, advocates say.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council, meeting this week in Vancouver, discussed the proposal Monday. The group is expected to take final action today.
“It’s really a landmark step for the council to go this direction,” said Paul Shively, a project manager with the Pew Charitable Trusts in Portland.
Pew is among the organizations that have pushed to raise awareness of the small schooling fish and their role in the larger ecosystems tied to the Pacific Ocean. Some forage fish such as sardines have been fished for decades and are subject to existing limits and rules. But other species are largely unmanaged now, leaving them vulnerable to unregulated fishing, according to Pew.
Advocates have sought to shine a spotlight on the issue and urged the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which holds broad jurisdiction off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California, to act.
The proposal now under consideration would apply to several species of forage fish, including herring, saury and smelt, among others. New commercial fisheries targeting forage fish would have to show that the operation wouldn’t harm the larger ecosystem before it could begin, Shively said. Existing fisheries would not be affected.
The idea has evolved from a Fishery Ecosystem Plan the council previously worked on and eventually adopted in 2013. It has seen broad public support.
“This has been a four-year process by the council at this point,” Shively said. “And they really get a lot of credit for seeing this through. It’s a visionary approach.”
If adopted by the council, the new rules would still need approval from the National Marine Fisheries Service to take effect. The federal agency has already been involved in the review process. That’s helped officials learn a lot about forage fish through a proposal that would take fishery policy into new territory, said Yvonne deReynier, who works with the National Marine Fisheries Service’s Northwest Regional Office in Seattle.
The fishery management council is scheduled to reconvene at 8 a.m. today at the Hilton Vancouver Washington, 301 W. Sixth St. The meeting will begin with public comment, followed by possible action by the council.