Cutbacks of small fish catches will yield big gains
August 23, 2012
Environmental Industry Magazine
Ellen K. Pikitch, Ph.D.
Lenfest Forage Fish Taskforce
A recent report authored by 13 preeminent scientists from
around the globe shows that some of the smallest fish
swimming in the seas play a disproportionately large role
in ocean food webs. Often referred to as “bait fish,” these
small, schooling fish, which include anchovies, herring,
menhaden and sardines, are also called forage fish
because so much ocean life depends upon them for food.
More than half the diet of many types of seabirds, marine
mammals and larger fish such as tuna, cod and salmon,
consists of forage fish. These and other species that
depend heavily on forage fish as prey occur commonly
throughout the world’s oceans.
The report also reveals that the value of forage
fish left in the ocean to support production of
larger, commercially important species is twice
their value in a net. Overall, forage fish provide
nearly $US17billion per year to commercial
fisheries production. Yet alarmingly, in many
places, these fish and the services they provide
are in jeopardy because they are being pulled
from the ocean at an unsustainably high rate.
Forage fish now make up more than one-third
of the world’s marine fish catch. With price and
demand skyrocketing, it’s time to hit the brakes,
and implement smarter management policies to
avert further damage.
Despite their vital role in maintaining healthy
oceans and their high economic value, only in
recent years have these small fish begun to
garner the attention they deserve. Part of the
reason for this is that our encounters with forage
fish are most often indirect and inconspicuous.
Only 10 percent of the forage fish catch is directly
consumed by people, while the majority of the
catch is processed into fishmeal and fish oil, and
used in agriculture and aquaculture.
Some of the oil, valued for its rich supply of
heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, is used in
Unsustainable exploitation of forage fish would
negatively affect not only the animal species
but also the industries that depend on them.
However, prior to the formation of the Lenfest
Forage Fish Task Force, specific scientific
guidance for managing forage fish in a holistic
manner that recognizes their vital ecological
roles was generally lacking. Following three
years of intensive work involving both synthesis
of existing information and development of new
science, the task force recommended specific
goals, targets and thresholds for forage fish
management that are designed to sustain both
forage fish and their predators.
In developing its advice, the task force drew upon
lessons learned from past examples of forage
fish management. The consequences of ignoring
interdependencies in marine ecosystems are
illustrated in the case of the Barents Sea where
collapses of the forage fish, capelin, due to
fishing and other causes, resulted in nutritional
stress and cannibalism in cod, a predator fish,
with consequent economic losses to the cod
fishery. Additionally, starving mammals and sea
birds died or left the area. However, this situation
was addressed, and the “capelin rule” was put
into place, which prohibits fishing of capelin if the
biomass of the population falls below a certain
level. Since this rule has been implemented,
there have been no additional collapses of the
capelin fishery, and the cod population in the
Barents Sea is the healthiest in the world.
After comparing conventional and precautionary management
strategies, the task force found that only precautionary management
protects both the fish and the predator species that depend on them.
The task force determined that the amount of information available
about the ecosystem and the forage fishery should establish, in part,
the level of precaution managers should apply. In circumstances
where basic information is lacking, the task force advises that no
new forage fish fisheries should be initiated. Conversely, where there
is abundant clear, and reliable information about the consequences
of forage fish fishing, higher exploitation rates may be applied. Most
fisheries now considered well-managed from a conventional, singlespecies
perspective will likely fall within the “intermediate” information
tier defined by the task force. For intermediate tier fisheries, it is
recommended that catches be halved, and the amount of forage fish
left in the ocean should be doubled, compared with conventional
The cutbacks in fishing recommended by the task force could
significantly reduce catches for some ongoing forage fisheries.
However, the benefits of implementing the task force’s advice should
far outweigh these short-term costs. The expected benefits include
more robust forage fish fisheries less subject to boom and bust cycles,
healthy oceans with a full complement of marine life and an increase
in the economic value of global commercial fisheries. Overall, these are
mighty hefty gains to be achieved from more conservative management
of some very small fish.
Read the article in Environmental Industry Magazine online.