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Task Force Hopes to Save Forage Fish
December 04, 2008 - The Statesman - The Paper of Stony Brook University
By Carol Tang

“Look for the birds," his father told him. To this day, Tom Wheatley remembers fishing with his dad in Long Island Sound.

Birds signal that predator fish, like bluefish, are lurking beneath the water. But nowadays, recreational fishermen no longer get the catch they once did. Predator fish are scarce. Forage fish, the primary food supply for predator fish, seabirds and marine mammals, are depleting.

Forage fish are small to medium-sized "baitfish" such as anchovy, sardine, menhaden, herring, mackerel, capelin, squid, shrimp and krill. They filter algae and play a vital role in the marine food web, serving as prey for a plethora of ocean predators, from fish to sharks to whales.

Despite their importance in the marine ecosystem, lack of fishery management and advanced technology has enabled industrial fisheries to remove vast quantities of forage fish from the oceans.

"It's important that we manage forage fish, a critical group in the marine ecosystem, with the least impact on the fish that consume them," said Christine Santora, a research associate for the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University and the project director of the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, one of the initiatives under the institute.

The task force, which will hold its first meeting in the beginning of 2009, is an assembly of scientists from fields including oceanography, climate and marine mammals. It will investigate and develop science-based recommendations to provide guidance for policy makers in implementing sustainable management of forage fish.

The current "single-species" approach to managing fisheries in the U.S., focusing solely on the target stock, ignores the role of forage fish in the ecosystem.

Each year, fisheries in the U.S. remove more than one billion pounds of forage fish, which are processed to make commercial products, from vitamin supplements to pet food to lipstick. The harvested fish are taken to reduction facilities where they are boiled to separate fish solids from fish oil.

"It's the most horrifying smell you can imagine," said Wheatley, who has now relocated to Tampa, Florida, and is the Gulf of Mexico regional representative for the Marine Fish Conservation Network.

Wheatley is working with several agencies, including the Save the Bait Campaign in Mississippi, to protect forage fish like menhaden.

Menhaden is the second largest fishery in the U.S., following Alaska pollock. No motion has yet been introduced, but Wheatley is joining other scientists in asking the Mississippi state government to place a limit on the amount of menhaden that fisheries can harvest.

"We need to do this right by working on national policies that promote healthy oceans," Wheatley said. An estimated 10 million annual pounds of other sea life, including sharks, are killed as a result of fishery bycatch where thousands of other haul are dumped overboard.

Although the Alaska pollock fishery, a billion-dollar industry that comprises almost one-third of all U.S. seafood landings by weight, is one of the "cleanest" fisheries, discarding only 0.5 percent of the total catch, the pollock fishery is on the verge of collapse. The pollock population has decreased by 50 percent since last year. Of the four Alaska pollock stocks, two have shut down completely.

Ken Stump, a policy analyst for the Marine Fish Conservation Network, has spent ten years working with fisheries in Alaska. "We're very concerned that far too many forage fish are used as fish meal that feed hogs, chickens and pets," Stump said. "There was a time when chickens and hogs were doing quite well without fish meal."

Soymeal can be used as a substitute for fishmeal, but the fatty acids found in forage fish are superior to other meals and increase disease resistance, according to the 2006 Fisheries Centre Research Reports from the University of British Columbia, Canada. Because forage fish are worth virtually "pennies on the pound," fisheries compensate for their lower value by taking them in larger numbers.

"It's the most horrifying smell you can imagine," said Wheatley, who has now relocated to Tampa, Florida, and is the Gulf of Mexico regional representative for the Marine Fish Conservation Network.

Wheatley is working with several agencies, including the Save the Bait Campaign in Mississippi, to protect forage fish like menhaden.

Menhaden is the second largest fishery in the U.S., following Alaska pollock. No motion has yet been introduced, but Wheatley is joining other scientists in asking the Mississippi state government to place a limit on the amount of menhaden that fisheries can harvest.

"We need to do this right by working on national policies that promote healthy oceans," Wheatley said. An estimated 10 million annual pounds of other sea life, including sharks, are killed as a result of fishery bycatch where thousands of other haul are dumped overboard.

Although the Alaska pollock fishery, a billion-dollar industry that comprises almost one-third of all U.S. seafood landings by weight, is one of the "cleanest" fisheries, discarding only 0.5 percent of the total catch, the pollock fishery is on the verge of collapse. The pollock population has decreased by 50 percent since last year. Of the four Alaska pollock stocks, two have shut down completely.

Ken Stump, a policy analyst for the Marine Fish Conservation Network, has spent ten years working with fisheries in Alaska. "We're very concerned that far too many forage fish are used as fish meal that feed hogs, chickens and pets," Stump said. "There was a time when chickens and hogs were doing quite well without fish meal."

Soymeal can be used as a substitute for fishmeal, but the fatty acids found in forage fish are superior to other meals and increase disease resistance, according to the 2006 Fisheries Centre Research Reports from the University of British Columbia, Canada. Because forage fish are worth virtually "pennies on the pound," fisheries compensate for their lower value by taking them in larger numbers.

Forage fish are short-lived and fluctuate in abundance naturally, but the stocks are completely capable of recovering, as long as industries fish more conservatively, according to Stump.

A 1995 net-ban on fishing in Florida, an amendment secured by a 57 percent majority of voters, decreased the annual average of commercial fishing trips from 62,435 trips to 23,768 trips by 2004, a reduction of 62 percent. As a result, the state's commercial landings have gone down 67 percent, from 25 million pounds to 8 million pounds.

A 2006 Spotted Seatrout Stock Assessment by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Committee showed that spawning of spotted seatrout increased by 40 percent in northwest and southwest Florida, exceeding the initial target of 35 percent.

"The net ban has definitely made a difference," Wheatley said "Fishing has gotten better, and as the species comes back there are great fall and spring migrations."

But it will take more than just a fishery regulation to ensure that fish continue swimming in the earth's oceans. Despite progress, fish populations have continued to decline.

The National Fish Hatchery System currently has 87 facilities across the U.S. that grow hundreds of endangered aquatic species in captivity, including mussels, pallet sturgeon and lake trout.

The current budget for maintaining the facilities is $120 million, but there is about a $100 million backlog in maintenance fees, said Joseph E. Moran Jr., chief of the branch of budget and performance management for the Division of the National Fish Hatchery System.

In order for fish conservation to be successful, federal organizations must work together with fisheries, non-governmental associations and even businesses to provide a cleaner marine environment. "We can grow fish for very long, but if they jump into toxic waste, those fish are history," Moran said.

Now in its third year of implementation, the National Fish Habitat Action Plan has established partnerships in all 50 states calling for landowners, businesses and local governments to become part of the solution to forage fish conservation.

"It is a blueprint for fish conservation in the 21st century," said Tom Busiahn, who has worked in fisheries management for 35 years and is the coordinator for the National Fish Habitat Action Plan for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. "We may have reached the limits of regulatory approaches and must involve more people in a voluntary approach."

With time, improved conservation and management can repopulate our oceans with fish. "It's never going to be like the good old days, but a healthy environment gives folks more opportunities to enjoy available resources," said Wheatley, who, on occasions, still enjoys a peaceful day of fishing.

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