Turns out we need to leave more little fish in the ocean so the bigger fish have enough to eat.

Washington, DC | April 3rd, 2012

The Lenfest Ocean Program hosted an event in DC at the offices of the Pew Charitable Trusts for the release of the Forage Fish Task Force Report “Little Fish, Big Impact.” Around 50 people from the DC ocean science and policy community attended. The report has been years in preparation by a team of 15 researchers. The executive summaryfull report, and a nice 3-minute summary video are all available online, but a few of the salient points I noted are below:

leftest report cover - small

Background: Forage fish are small bait fish, such as anchovies, sardines, herring, and menhaden, that are the primary food source for many commercially valuable fish species (e.g. salmon) and incredibly adorable species (e.g. Humboldt penguins). Forage fish are vulnerable to overfishing because they tend to form dense schools and their populations naturally, often widely, fluctuate.

Results:

  • Forage fish are twice as valuable ($11.3 billion) in the ocean (as food for bigger fish), than if caught and sold ($5.6 billion).
  • Conventional management guidelines would allow for 87% of the maximum sustainable yield (MSY) of forage fish to be caught, but ecological models show that fishing at that level is associated with a 42% chance of forage fish populations collapsing, and a 28% decline in populations of forage fish predator species.

Recommendations:

  • Reduce catches of forage fish by ~50% to protect ocean ecosystems and sustain catches of species at higher trophic levels that eat forage fish.
  • Leave 75-90% of forage fish in the ocean, unfished, to promote stable ecosystems.
  • Take a three-tiered approach (snazzily diagramed here, and very briefly laid out below) to setting catch limits, based on the amount of data that exists on the forage fish population:
  1. Low data: Do not start fishing new stocks of forage with without data on how much of that stock is required to support the related populations of predatory fish and mammals.
  2. Intermediate data: Use spatial management to protect the food source of local predatory species and maintain forage fish populations at 40+% of unfished levels. Several technical modeling suggestions, to ensure precautionary approach, also suggested.
  3. High data: Use spatial management to protect the food source of local predatory species and maintain forage fish populations at 30+% of unfished levels. Several technical modeling suggestions, to ensure precautionary approach, also suggested.

Opinion: Capt. Patrick Paquette (recreational fishing community advocate on Cape Cod): Cod are starving. Industrial fisheries for forage fish don’t provide good jobs that sustain communities – better to leave them in the ocean to feed the predatory fish that we catch.

Comments from attendees indicated that this report is a long-desired scientific product with great potential use. I look forward to the findings of this report being incorporated into plans for more sustainable management of forage fish. Not to so could result in malnourished whales. Skinny whales?! Sad, and not nearly as charming.

Important Note: Humans should continue to eat baitfish.  Low on the food chain, and fast reproducing, they are among the most sustainable seafoods.  The problem is that 90% of baitfish caught is turned into fish meal and fish oil, most of which is used to feed farmed fish and pigs and chickens.

[Addendum: New York Time’s April 8th editorial coverage of the report.]