Anchovy catch, one of the species belonging to the so-called "forage fish." (Photo: lenfestocean.org)
Fishing for forage fish should be cut by half: scientists
Tuesday, April 03, 2012, 03:30 (GMT + 9)
Fishing for “forage fish” should be halved globally to account for their critical role as prey for larger species, recommends an expert group of marine scientists.
The Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force conducted the most comprehensive worldwide analysis of forage fish populations to date and its report, “Little Fish, Big Impact: Managing a crucial link in ocean food webs,” concluded that in most ecosystems at least twice as many of these species should not be fished.
Forage fish are small to medium-sized species such as anchovies, herring and sardines.
A thriving marine ecosystem relies on abundant forage fish, as they eat tiny plankton and are then eaten by larger animals such as whales and seals -- and many commercially and recreationally valuable fish found around North America, such as salmon, tuna, striped bass and cod. The task force estimated that, globally, forage fish are twice as valuable in the water as in a net—contributing USD 11.3 billion versus USD 5.6 billion as direct catch.
The demand for these species in recent decades has boomed for use as fish meal and fish oil to feed farmed animals and for nutritional supplements.
But forage fish are vulnerable to collapse because, even when their abundance drops, they form dense schools and are easily caught. Further, they are sensitive to changes in environmental conditions.
“Traditionally we have been managing fisheries for forage species in a manner that cannot sustain the food webs, or some of the industries, they support,” says Dr Ellen K. Pikitch of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, who convened and led the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force. “As three-fourths of marine ecosystems in our study have predators highly dependent on forage fish, it is economically and biologically imperative that we develop smarter management for these small but significant species.”
Small schooling fish are an important part of the ecosystem on both coasts of North America. On the eastern seaboard, more menhaden are caught (by weight) than any other fish off the Atlantic coast, and this means less food for tuna, bluefish and striped bass and affects the fisheries and tourism industries.
“Around the globe, we’ve seen how removing too many forage fish can significantly affect predators and people who rely on that system’s resources for their livelihoods,” said Dr Edward D Houde, a professor at the University of Maryland’s Centre for Environmental Science and task force member. “We need to be more precautionary in how we manage forage fish in ecosystems that we know very little about.”
The Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force consists of 13 preeminent scientists with expertise in a wide range of disciplines and was established to generate specific and practical advice to support better management of forage fish around the world.
By Natalia Real