Why forage fish species are worth fighting for

Why forage fish species are worth fighting for
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Anyone who has seen a nature documentary knows a central truth of life in the animal kingdom: Predators depend on prey — and will perish if they cannot successfully hunt for their next meal.

In the ocean, the food of choice for most iconic marine life is just a handful of small species of fish collectively called “forage stocks.” These small schooling fish — such as herring, menhaden, sand lance and sardines — swim near the bottom of the marine food web, meaning that pretty much everything else eats them. Common predators include sea birds, whales, sharks and most of the fish that end up on your dinner plate.

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As fisheries managers have learned to promote the rebuilding of fisheries and marine ecosystems, the central role of forage fish protection has become ever more apparent. That is why, as lawmakers in Washington move to update and amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) this year, it is vital that Congress pursue a balanced and sustainable approach to managing these small but critical fish.

 

It’s impossible for any predator fishery — which includes groundfish, tuna and many others — to remain stable for the long term without an abundant and diverse forage base. Smart management choices for forage fish are ultimately an investment in all fisheries. This has long been an accepted fact among stewardship-minded commercial and recreational fishermen across the nation.

This makes it all the more troubling that the version of MSA reauthorization approved by the House Natural Resources Committee in December does not include bipartisan compromise language on forage fish protections.

The Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association was founded in 2006 by commercial groundfish fishermen from small fishing villages in Maine. These fishermen, who make their living fishing for species like cod, haddock and flounder, came together to fight to preserve their communities and way of life. By that time, groundfish stocks had declined so precipitously that the future of the fleet was in jeopardy.

The newly formed fishermen’s association created a plan to ensure that the worst-case scenario — total destruction of the Maine groundfish fishery — would never come to pass. These founding fishermen identified several critical issues early on, including ensuring that enough forage fish stayed in the ocean. In the past 11 years, that priority has not changed.

Fishermen might not have letters like M.S. or Ph.D. after their names, but as keen observers on the water over the course of a lifetime, they are invaluable sources of scientific information. If you ask fishermen what they look for to predict changes in fish stock health, they will tell you it often comes down to one thing: availability of food.

When the food — small forage fish — isn’t there, neither are the big target fish. We can’t expect cod, bluefin tuna and haddock populations to stay healthy enough to support commercial-scale fisheries if we aren’t leaving enough prey in the ocean to sustain them.

Certain areas of the country, such as Alaska, have recognized the importance of forage fish and have not authorized fisheries that target these stocks. In other regions, however, huge industries have been built on the backs of forage fish populations.

Any fishery directly targeting forage species, including the herring and menhaden that supply lobster bait in New England (an important industry that is worth $500 million annually to the local economy), must proceed with great caution to prevent putting too much pressure on the delicate food web.

Fishery managers in every region of the United States must prevent overfishing and localized depletion of forage stocks. To do this, they must manage at both the local and ecosystem levels and ensure that scientific research priorities and management decisions reflect the importance of forage stocks.

This is challenging, and we must recognize that in many cases forage fish species will continue to be harvested for bait and other uses. We use forage fish for lots of things. We use it to bait our lobster traps and tuna hooks, turn it into fish oil, feed it to our pets and (some) even eat it on pizza.

But we can’t forget that the most important role of forage species like herring and menhaden is to support the rest of the ocean. But with proper management and long-term planning, there can be plenty of fish in the sea to meet everyone’s needs. We call on Congress to fix the new draft of Magnuson-Stevens and make sure that little fish get a big helping hand.

Ben Martens is the executive director of the Maine Coast Fishermen’s Association, a member of the Fishing Communities Coalition.