Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Protecting the Prey: A Plan for the Ocean Food Web’s Foundation

Management of sandeels and other forage fish is essential for the larger fish species that depend upon them.

Charter boat captain and outdoors writer John McMurray says forage fish—those small, schooling species that feed many other animals in the sea—are fundamental for his work:  “If there’s no bait, there’s no fishing.”

In a recent blog post at Reel Time, McMurray describes striped bass chasing sandeels, false albacore hunting bay anchovies, and fluke feeding on silversides. All those prey species are crucial and yet, he notes, they are not managed by fisheries officials. “Frankly, that really scares me,” McMurray says.

Here’s the scenario McMurray fears. Demand for small, oily fish is growing worldwide for use as Omega 3 diet supplements, as meal for aquaculture and livestock, and as bait. At the same time, many fishermen are idled by the effects of overfishing of key species such as cod.

“It’s hard to believe those fishermen won’t actively be looking for new markets,” McMurray says. “The stage is set for entrepreneurial fishermen to initiate large-scale fisheries on new low-tropic level species. In fact, there are already rumors bouncing around about the development of cod-ends with super-small mesh nets to catch sandeels in New England.”

McMurray says such fishing could begin “without any data, any plan, or any oversight in place—and the only way managers would likely get involved would be AFTER a problem develops and is brought to their attention.”

Fortunately, McMurray also serves on the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which has initiated a white paper to explore options for dealing with unmanaged forage species. Ideally, this will lead to a system where any new large-scale fishery on a forage species would have to be proven sustainable before fishing begins. “That makes much more sense than letting fisheries develop, then getting caught behind the eight-ball,” McMurray writes.

You can read more from McMurray here and more about the mid-Atlantic council’s efforts on forage fish here.


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