New England Fisheries

Fish First, Ask Questions Later?

A Common Tern with a Sand Lance. Biddeford Pool, ME. Photo Credit: Chuck Homler via Wikimedia Commons

What might happen to our ocean food web if people start scooping up more kinds of the little “forage fish” that help feed the rest of the sea?

That’s on charter captain and fishery manager John McMurray’s mind in his latest blog post at Reel-Time. Specifically, McMurray’s concerned with the slim, bottom-dwelling bait fish known as “sand lance” or “sand eels.”

“Yes, there are rumors floating around that entrepreneurial New England fishermen are developing small mesh cod-ends, which is the back end of a trawl net that holds all the fish during dragging, designed to catch sand eels.”

McMurray takes a look at the global market for fishmeal—which is rapidly expanding to feed the booming aquaculture industry—and concludes that a new fishery on sand eels is not a far-fetched notion. Then he reviews the current management framework that might regulate such a fishery and sees a recipe for trouble:

“[I]f it turned into a large-scale fishery, like we have with other forage such as herring, mackerel, menhaden, etc., it could be absolutely disastrous…I can’t help but think that such a fishery could blow up, on a large scale at any time. And to my knowledge, there currently isn’t anything preventing that from happening.”

McMurray points out the wide variety of predators dependent on sand eels, from game fish to seabirds to whales. This summer, New England whale watching tours got a taste of what a downturn in sand eel abundance might mean for their businesses. As Sean Horgan reported in the Gloucester Daily Times, whale watching operators had an off season. Horgan quoted Michelle Barclay, naturalist at Gloucester’s 7 Seas Whale Watch:

“Whales go where the fish are the heaviest…When they’re abundant, life is very, very easy for us. When they’re slim, life is difficult.”

Naturalist Barclay attributes this year’s low levels of sand lance in New England to a naturally varying cycle. Across the pond in old England, however, U.K. scientists tracking the fishing of sand eels there have documented serious effects on predator animals.

In the North Sea, a similar species of sand eel is heavily fished to be turned into fishmeal and fertilizer. A study in the journal Ecological Indicators found that fishing has hurt the ability of seabirds to feed their nestlings:

“Levels of seabird breeding failure were higher in years when a greater proportion of the North Sea’s sandeels, important prey for seabirds, was commercially fished.”

Given the important role these fish and other forage species play, McMurray makes a compelling argument that fishery management councils should get out in front of this issue:

“It’s a management vacuum that needs to be filled as rapidly as possible before we get ourselves in a situation where large fleets are mowing down schools of sand eels…before we have any idea of what a sustainable harvest should look like.  Managers would be struggling to figure out how to deal with it, while having no management scenario in place to curb such catches.”

Instead of a “fish first, ask questions later” approach, McMurray would prefer to do the necessary research to understand the prey species and the predators they feed before a fleet starts depleting forage fish. Some fishery managers call this approach “freezing the footprint.” Others might just call it common sense.


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