Unmanaged Forage Species To Be Considered for Protection Along the US West Coast

Created on Thursday, 05 July 2012

The importance of small fish species in the oceans is often overshadowed by the charisma of top predators such as whales and sharks. Yet, these large animals would not survive without the forage species that form the base of marine food webs. Forage species are defined as lower trophic level fishes and invertebrates that are preyed upon by larger marine mammals, seabirds, fishes, or turtles. Humans also harvest forage species as a source of fishmeal and fish oil, supplies of which have been increasingly used in the burgeoning worldwide aquaculture industry. Despite the reliance that many animal-rearing industries have on these resources, the impacts of harvesting forage species on ocean ecosystems have been largely overlooked and many U.S. fisheries for smaller fishes and invertebrates lack management plans altogether.  

Last week the Pacific Fisheries Management Council (PFMC) approved an ‘objectives and intent’ statement that aims to prohibit the development of new directed fisheries on unmanaged forage species. The decision is significant because it means the PFMC now officially recognizes the importance of forage species to the California Current ecosystem. The move echoes a 2006 decision by the PFMC to ban fisheries for krill along the U.S. west coast. While this recent decision can be viewed as a positive step for ecosystem-based management, some conservation groups, such as Oceana, were disappointed that actual implementation of regulatory measures were delayed by the PFMC until an unspecified future date.  

Some of the unmanaged forage species in the California current ecosystem include: American shad, mesopelagic fishes such as myctophids, Pacific sandlance, silversides, Osmerid smelts, speckled and longfin sanddabs, Pacific tomcod, small croakers (excluding white seabass and corbina), and pelagic squids such as the boreal clubhook and the neon flying squid. To date, forage fish management plans along the west coast of the U.S. have been established in Washington state and Alaska. 

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