Big Victory for Little Fish (and the Future of the Oceans)

If you love the oceans you will love this news: State regulators in California just adopted a groundbreaking new policy that sets a new direction for forage fish.
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school of barracuda
school of barracuda

If you love the oceans you will love this news: State regulators in California just adopted a groundbreaking new policy that sets a new direction for forage fish. Allow us to explain why this is so exciting.

When you think of the marine life of the California coast, some iconic species spring immediately to mind: huge pods of dolphins, bluefin tuna, seabirds, sharks and whales of all varieties. But underwriting this great abundance of life is the humble forage fish. It's the great shoals of krill -- a tiny crustacean -- that eventually become the 100-foot blue whale, while other forage fish -- like herring, anchovy, sardines, and squid -- attract migratory seabirds and marine mammals from across the Pacific, not to mention feed our abundant local fish and wildlife that stay here year round. Scientists are finding that the California coast is a globally important destination for forage fish and all the sea life dependent on them, our Blue Serengeti of the Pacific.

Last Wednesday, the California Fish and Game Commission signaled that it was ready to officially recognize the critical role of forage species. The five-member Commission unanimously adopted a new policy that will prevent both the exploitation of new forage fisheries, as well as the expansion of existing forage fisheries unless they can be proven to be sustainable with the best science available. Perhaps most encouraging is the new policy's emphasis on how each forage fish affects the overall ocean ecosystem, recognizing that depleting one species can have effects on many others. This recognition echoes the recommendations from the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, and represents the first incorporation of those recommendations into the policy arena.

The new measures could also have significant economic benefits. In 2009, according to the National Ocean Economics Program, ocean-based tourism and recreation on the U.S. west coast dependent on healthy forage fish brought in more than $18 billion in Gross Domestic Product. Healthy populations of forage fish not only make whale watching possible, but are a major boon to fishermen as well. Chinook salmon, albacore tuna, bluefin tuna, marlin, many species of rockfish, California halibut, lingcod, sablefish, and white seabass are but a few of the recreational and commercially valuable fisheries that depend on the smaller forage fish protected under the new Commission policy. As it is, a large portion of the forage fish that are landed on the west coast are used as feed in unsustainable global aquaculture operations or otherwise sold as bait.

A well-managed forage fishery can also feed... all of us. If forage fish can be managed wisely using an ecosystem-based approach, as in California's policy, these fish can be some of the healthiest and environmentally sound sources of protein out there. The benefits of eating forage fish are innumerable, from their richness in heart-healthy omega-3s to their relative dearth in mercury compared with larger predatory fish, such as tuna. Plus many of these fish are delicious. Globally, more than 90 percent of the forage fish caught don't directly feed people; if they did, we could provide hundreds of millions more people with healthy seafood meals across the globe.

But there is still work to be done. While the State of California signaled its leadership on the issue, last week federal regulators signaled a failure to learn from the lessons of past collapses. Shortly after John Steinbeck published Cannery Row in 1945, the sardine industry he documented collapsed, taking with it the ramshackle villages of cannery workers that sprouted up along Monterey Bay to support the once booming industry. Last week, despite the recent warnings by top scientists of another imminent collapse, federal regulators, who manage the west coast sardine population, pushed ahead with aggressive 2013 catch limits that follow the current course for sardines to a reprise of the 1950s collapse.

However, there are signs of hope and upcoming opportunities to turn these trends around. After 14 years of following the same formula for setting sardine quotas including for 2013, federal regulators committed to conducting a series of workshops early next year designed to revise and potentially overhaul this formula. The goal is to better incorporate the role of sardines and other forage fish in the ecosystem and the impacts of their removal when setting sardine catch levels in the future.

The past six years of advocacy by Oceana paid off. California's new state forage policy had input from conservation groups and the fishing industry, while receiving support from seafood business and California residents. The State of California chose a wise path for future forage fish management. Let's hope that the federal government follows their lead and recognizes the irreplaceable role these unassuming fish play in one of the richest ecosystems in the world.

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