Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Pacific Council Leads on Protecting Prey—Now Atlantic Coast Managers Should Raise the Bar

School of silversides. Image via NOAA.

Fisheries managers on the Pacific Coast made a big move this week to protect the little fish at the base of the ocean food web. The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which oversees federal waters along the California, Oregon, and Washington coasts, banned any new commercial fishing on forage fish that aren’t yet targeted. Before fishing on seven types of prey species can begin, a scientific assessment must demonstrate that the ocean ecosystem would not be harmed. The species covered include sand lance, silversides, and several kinds of smelt, squid, and herring – all important food sources for predator fish, marine mammals, and seabirds.

Paul Shively, who manages ocean conservation efforts along the West Coast for The Pew Charitable Trusts, wrote in a blog post that the council’s decision is also a step toward managing ocean resources with the “big picture” in mind:

It marks a fundamental change from traditional management of ocean fishing to a more comprehensive approach. It also cements the principle that responsible management requires asking questions before a fishery begins, rather than after.

The council’s vote was unanimous and Shively wrote that it reflects years of research and wide public input:

“The proposal earned support from a broad cross section of stakeholders, including recreational and commercial fishermen, as well as organizations advocating for conservation, ecotourism businesses, and restaurants. In fact, fishery managers have described the broad base of support on this issue as unprecedented.”

Similar proposals to protect forage fish are getting traction here on the Atlantic Coast.  As Talking Fish reported in December, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council is developing a plan that would require adequate scientific information about effects on the ecosystem before any new fishing on prey species is allowed. And in Florida, a coalition of sport fishing and conservation groups is urging officials to put safeguards on forage species in state waters.

New England, alas, lags behind. But the region’s council will have the opportunity to improve management of prey species as it develops plans for ecosystem based management and habitat protection.

Fishery managers in the East should take a look at their peers on the Pacific have done, and take forage fish protection coast-to-coast.


2 Responses to Pacific Council Leads on Protecting Prey—Now Atlantic Coast Managers Should Raise the Bar

  • Thomas Nies says:

    New England does not lag behind. Under existing regulations, small mesh fisheries are prohibited unless they receive an exemption under the Northeast Multispecies FMP. No one can start a legal fishery for sand lance or any other forage fishery without that exemption. This provision has been in place for decades.

  • Talking Fish says:

    While the New England Council has, indeed, had controls on the development of new small mesh fisheries in New England since 1994 through the Northeast Multispecies FMP, the focus on those fisheries has been on ensuring that there were not unacceptable levels of bycatch of other regulated species–“exemption programs must have demonstrated that incidental catch of regulated species is less than 5 percent of the total catch, by weight, and that the exemption will not jeopardize fishing mortality objectives.” That is an important rule even if it can be frighteningly generous when the 5% bycatch allowance is of an overfished stock in a commodity fishery like herring. But that can hardly be compared to the Pacific Council’s Comprehensive Ecosystem-Based Amendment 1, which was the focus of this story. The PFMC management scheme is specifically designed to protect unfished and unmanaged forage fish in order to preserve their critical role in the ecosystem. Perhaps the New England Council will discover the difference if it ever gets around to serious ecosystem-based fisheries management and forage fish protection.

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