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The Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force

imagePI: Dr. Ellen K. Pikitch, Institute for Ocean Conservation Science

Forage fish -- small schooling fishes such as sardines, anchovies, and menhaden -- are among the most ecologically and commercially important species in the marine environment. These naturally abundant fish serve as food for marine mammals, seabirds, and larger fish, and some act as filter feeders that maintain water quality and prevent destructive algal blooms. Forage fish are also highly valued by humans for many purposes: as food for people, as fish oil for popular Omega 3 dietary supplements, as bait in commercial fishing operations, and as feed for livestock and aquaculture.

In recent years, industrial forage fisheries have become highly sophisticated, and have greatly increased their capacity to catch these important prey species in larger numbers. A concomitant rise in market demand has led to extremely high catches of forage fish, which has reduced their availability to populations of larger fish, seabirds and marine mammals that depend on them for food. It is therefore necessary to develop smarter management approaches for forage fish that will not only ensure this resource is harvested sustainably but that also achieve a better balance between the needs of humans and the integrity of marine ecosystems. With support from the Lenfest Ocean Program, the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University launched the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, assembling a team of highly respected international scientists to comprehensively examine the management of forage fish populations and develop practical, science-based recommendations for policy makers and fisheries managers to follow. The plans will serve as a roadmap to achieving long-term sustainability and will embrace a holistic approach known as “ecosystem-based fisheries management,” or EBFM.

Over the past decade, scientists have increasingly called for use of ecosystem-based fisheries management. Rather than manage each fish species in isolation – usually, by determining the maximum sustainable catch for that species -- EBFM also considers how the catch is affected by or affects other ecosystem components. These include considering how catching one species may impact ocean habitats or other species taken incidentally (i.e. bycatch prevalence), as well as how the predators and prey of the target species will be affected, The interconnected nature of marine populations requires that fisheries be managed from this broader perspective. Forage fish are very nearly at the base of the food web in many marine ecosystems, and an EBFM approach for them is especially important because it will help protect the entire system from collapse.

Because of forage fishes’ unique role in food webs, EBFM for these fish will likely require a more nuanced understanding of food web dynamics. Forage fish are often involved in very complex food webs that are fundamentally unlike the terrestrial food webs that we are used to managing. For example, adult forage fish are filter feeders that eat the larvae of the larger fish that are their predators. Thus, explosive growth in forage fish due to predator removal can actually suppress predator recovery. Incorporating these unconventional and unpredictable predator-prey dynamics into forage fishery stock assessment and management will be an integral part of moving toward and implementing an EBFM approach.

With support from the Lenfest Ocean Program, the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University convened the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force (Task Force), a panel of thirteen preeminent marine and fisheries scientists from around the world, to develop consensus recommendations on forage fish management. These scientists collectively have expertise in a wide range of disciplines, including marine ecology, fisheries science, oceanography, ecosystem modeling, and fishery management. This distinguished panel is the first to issue broad, precautionary management recommendations for forage fish that take into account their ecological role. Over the last three years, the Task Force undertook a comprehensive examination of the science and management of forage fish populations, and conducted original research and synthesis to support their scientific advice.

The goal of the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force is to develop a more holistic, ecosystem-based approach to the management of forage fisheries globally. Because forage fish – which include anchovies, menhaden, and sardines – play an integral role in complex marine food webs, management plans must begin to take into account their predators, prey, and environment. Current management generally doesn’t take into account the distinctive ecological role these fish play in marine ecosystems, and methods to calculate sustainable fishing levels may be insufficient.

Some critical questions the Task Force examined include:

  • How do forage fish interact with other species, and respond to environmental conditions?
  • What is the impact of forage fish removals on predator species who feed on them? How can quantitative models be used to inform an ecosystem-based management approach?
  • How much are forage fish worth economically as “support” to other fisheries?
  • What tools are most effective for a managing forage fish?
  • What steps can managers take if they lack important scientific data on forage fish populations or their dependent predators?

The Task Force has prepared an in-depth report that addresses these topics and presents its key findings and recommendations. The report will be released in April 2012.

More Information

Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force

Lenfest Ocean Program

Ellen Pikitch, PhD's bio

Christine Santora's bio

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