Conserving tiny forage fish, the heroes of our shared ocean ecosystem

Conserving tiny forage fish, the heroes of our shared ocean ecosystem
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Atlantic Puffins, those charismatic little seabirds with wildly colorful bills, are warning us of big trouble in the ocean. Puffins now must travel further and dive deeper to find the tiny fish their chicks need to survive. Even so, Puffin parents increasingly are coming up short and last year many chicks starved. 

Why should we care if Puffins can’t find the fish they need for their young pufflings? 

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The tiny forage fish they live on — including sardines, anchovies, herring — are the heart of the entire marine food web. Dozens of species of sea birds, whales and other sea mammals can’t live without them. The multi-billion dollar recreational and commercial fishing industries that support millions of American jobs depend on them. The economy of every state in the country — whether it touches an ocean, or has waterways that feed into oceans — is impacted by the health of forage fish. 

Humans use forage fish as bait for bigger fish and lobsters. We grind them up for pet food, fertilizer and cosmetics and we pound them into fish oil. Commercial trawlers outfitted with nets the size of a football field snare millions of small fish at a time.

Today, the combination of growing commercial pressures and changing environmental conditions that is pushing forage fish further north and into deeper waters is putting this important part of the food chain at huge risk. 

Dwindling supplies of forage fish and changes in their ocean habitats have contributed to precipitous drops in populations of seabirds, as well as the Atlantic coast’s iconic rockfish.

Seabirds such as Albatross, Gulls and Petrels have declined a staggering 70 percent in the last 70 years, faced with the combination of fewer forage fish, rising sea levels, warming oceans and greater acidity in the water.

Rockfish was recently declared overfished. While fishing pressure is certainly playing a role, fewer available smaller fish and other environmental changes are also major contributors.

Saving and conserving these forage fish populations matters not only to the birds and fish that eat them but to humans from all walks of life, whether bird watchers, anglers or the millions of people whose livelihoods depend on a healthy marine environment.

There is a common-sense way to help both the seabirds and the fishers. The United States has one of the best-managed fishing industries in the world. Management requirements under a federal law called the Magnuson-Stevens Act have helped bring back fisheries that at different times have been on the brink of collapse. 

But while that law sets up a system to impose limits on catches of commercial and recreational fish, such as bluefin tuna and red snapper, the law is not designed to properly manage forage fish in a way that accounts for their role in the ecosystem.

A new law sponsored by Reps. Debbie DingellDeborah (Debbie) Ann DingellDemocrats ask Labor Department to investigate Amazon warehouses Overnight Energy: Trump threatens veto on defense bill that targets 'forever chemicals' | Republicans form conservation caucus | Pressure mounts against EPA's new FOIA rule Trump threatens veto on defense bill that targets 'forever chemicals' MORE (D-Mich.) and Brian MastBrian Jeffrey MastOvernight Energy: Trump threatens veto on defense bill that targets 'forever chemicals' | Republicans form conservation caucus | Pressure mounts against EPA's new FOIA rule Republicans form conservation caucus to take on environment, climate change Finally, GOP lawmakers prove conservation and conservatism go hand-in-hand MORE (R-Fla.), called the Forage Fish Conservation Act, would recognize that humans need to leave an adequate share of forage fish in the ocean to support seabirds and other ocean creatures, including the striped bass, salmon, cod and other fish that people like to catch or eat.

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Time is running out.  With greater pressure to harvest forage fish for a variety of human uses, better science-based management of these small fish that have such a massive importance to marine wildlife and the fishing community is crucial.

This bipartisan law will prevent these essential fish populations from being depleted, thus jeopardizing the entire marine food web. 

The Puffins are depending on us — so are the rockfish, the tuna and the whales. And so are the millions of people whose jobs depend on the health and abundance of the fish in the sea.

David Yarnold is the president and CEO of the National Audubon Society. Follow him on Twitter @david_yarnold.

Glenn Hughes is president of the American Sportfishing Association. Follow him on Twitter @gbchughes.