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Fly Fishing in Saltwaters Magazine



Low-value, high-volume forage fisheries profit few while putting entire ecosystems at risk


Low on the food chain bait-fish (aka forage-fish) may not garner the same attention as charismatic mega-fauna like bluefin tuna, swordfish, sharks etc, yet one doesn’t need an ecology degree to understand their immense importance.   As anglers we are keenly aware of it.  No bait, no fish.  Seems pretty simple, but surprisingly, in most cases managers have failed to address the relationship.    


Essentially “forage-fish” are the base for entire food webs.   Examples include small and medium-sized pelagic fish such as anchovy, sardine, herring, menhaden, mackerel and capelin.   Squid, shrimp, and tiny shrimp-like creatures called krill are also considered forage fish. Pacific hake (whiting) on the west coast and its close cousin in Alaska, the walleye pollock, are major forage species at all life stages in their respective ecosystems.  



Most forage species’ survival technique involves grouping in large yet tight schools while individuals vie for a middle position so as to avoid the perimeter where the weak are picked off by predators.   Most serious anglers have witnessed such a “bait ball”.  While this schooling behavior and superabundance make them ideal prey for top predator fish, it also makes them susceptible to large-scale purse-seine nets which scoop them from the sea by the ton.


Today forage fish support the largest fisheries in the world. The University of British Columbia Fisheries Centre reports that forage fish account for a staggering 37 percent of all fish taken from the world's oceans each year.  In U.S. waters, forage fisheries dwarf all others in terms of tonnage caught, accounting for more than 70% of recent landings of finfish.   


Along the east coast and Gulf of Mexico, catches of herring and menhaden dominate landings. Along the west coast, landings of Pacific hake (whiting), sardine, and market squid are much larger than any other fishery out there.  The gigantic Alaska pollock fishery accounts for nearly three-quarters of Alaska's groundfish catch and is considered the nation's largest fishery, accounting for nearly 40 percent of the total U.S. catch of fish. 


While forage account for more than 70 percent of all marine finfish landed in the US annually, by weight, they represent less than 30 percent of the total value of commercial landings nationally. This is because the major fisheries are typically low-value operations, often worth only pennies on the pound off the boat.  Thus, industrial-scale forage-fish operations require vast amounts of fish to make a profit, and they are dominated by a handful of corporate fishing and processing companies.


The Alaska Pollock and Pacific hake (whiting) fisheries are controlled by multinational trawl fishing and processing companies headquartered in Seattle, Washington, Japan and Europe. The Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico menhaden fisheries – second largest fishery by weight in the United States, combined – are controlled by a single company (Omega Protein Corporation, Inc.). In all these fisheries, the numbers of fishing vessels involved represent a miniscule fraction of America’s fishing fleets.



Net Loss

A recent study by the University of British Columbia found that 90 per cent of such forage catches are processed to make fishmeal and fish oil.  In most cases the fish are not sold as human food, but instead billions of pounds of fish are processed into product used in poultry and livestock feeds, as well as aquaculture feeds, and pet foods.  According to the study, factory-farmed fish, pigs and poultry are consuming roughly six times the amount of seafood eaten by Americans.


It takes as much as 4-5 pounds of fish to produce a pound of fish oil or dry fishmeal.  When it comes to farmed fish, there is a net protein loss.  It takes three pounds of fish feed to produce one pound of farmed fish. 


Addressing the problem of net protein loss, the study suggest that it would be better if humans ate these small fish instead of using them as feed. "If you're creating protein for humans to consume, does it make sense to take three to five pounds of perfectly good food and convert it into only one pound of food?" said Ellen Pikitch, executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science and a professor at Stony Brook University in New York.


Such a poor use of forage fish isn’t necessary.   Soy-based feeds and other land-based crops are available and are indeed used, but fishmeal and fish oil are used far more frequently as they are easy to catch in large numbers, and thus, relatively inexpensive.  As a result, there is a growing demand on the world’s forage fish stocks and increasing pressure on forage fisheries to expand. 


While global catches of wild marine fish have leveled off since the 1980s and 75 percent of the world’s fisheries have reached or exceeded sustainable limits, aquaculture production has grown at an average annual rate of 8.8 percent since 1970 and has increased its share of global fisheries production from less than four percent in 1970 to more than 32 percent in 2004.  Scientists expect a continued increase in effort as a result of the aquaculture boom.  As catches of forage fish increase, it will become more and more difficult for marine predators to compete with today’s high-tech, super-efficient industrial fisheries. 


Ecosystem Management


For the most part, fishery managers do not consider the essential role of forage fish in marine food webs when they set annual catch limits.  Traditional “single-species” management focuses on maximizing fishery yields from individual fish stocks without considering their role in an ecosystem context. 


Protecting and cautiously managing forage fish is a critical first step towards an ecosystem approach to fisheries management.  Food web interactions should be explicitly accounted for when developing fishery harvest strategies.


National Standard 1 (NS1) of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) states that, “conservation and management measures shall prevent overfishing while achieving, on a continuing basis, the optimum yield from each fishery.” The MSA’s definition of optimum yield (OY) authorizes reductions in fishing to account for ecological factors, but neither the MSA nor the existing NS1 regulations provide guidance on how to reduce catch levels to preserve the ecological role of forage fish in their respective ecosystems.  


NMFS is now in the process of revising NS1 guidelines.  It should  take this opportunity to amend the existing NS1 guidelines to recognize the critical role that forage fish play and provide fishery managers with specific direction on how to ensure that there are enough of these critical species in the water.