Protecting Ocean Ecosystems

Pacific Coast Commercial Fishing Ban Provides Template for Proactively Protecting Forage Fish Species Critical to Marine Ecosystem Health

An adult sand lance. Image credit: NOAA.

NOAA Fisheries commendably finalized a ban on directed commercial fishing for several forage fish species, including Pacific sand lance, silversides, certain varieties of herring, smelt, and squid, off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. The rule’s preemptive approach, adopted by the Pacific Fisheries Management Council last year, restricts the development of commercial fisheries for these small pelagic species where insufficient scientific information exists to assess the potential impacts of such commercial fishing on the species, other fisheries, fishing communities, and the marine ecosystem. The prohibition does not affect existing fisheries for sardines, anchovies, and Pacific herring.

Rather than awaiting drastic forage fish species declines and the associated ripple effects throughout the marine food web before responding with harvesting restrictions, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council and NOAA Fisheries proactively protected species critical to the marine ecosystem, rendering the rule a prime example of ecosystem-based fisheries management. The forage fish species protected by these regulations, rarely specifically targeted by fishermen in federal waters, constitute ‘ecosystem component’ species necessitating safeguards from growing global exploitation pressures, beyond just their own individual species’ sustainability requirements, to preserve their significant roles in fostering ecosystem health as prey species for larger fish, marine mammals, and seabirds.

As New England and other coastal regions throughout the country evaluate ecosystem-based fisheries management approaches, they would be wise to heed the preventative action adopted along the Pacific coast for forage fish species management. After all, any structure depends on a solid foundation for long-term stability, making healthy forage fish populations imperative to the sustainability of interconnected marine ecosystems encompassing numerous fisheries, as well as a multitude of industries and communities reliant on them. In contrast to the traditional reactionary fisheries management techniques that often result in too little, too late for sustaining robust fish stocks, the Pacific coast protective ban marks a refreshing, and hopefully trend-setting, development for conserving keystone species at the core of ocean ecosystems.


Mandy Helwig Staff Attorney for Conservation Law Foundation

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