Oregon On Board With Effort to Protect 'Forage Fish'
Preemptive measures part of ecosystem-based management focus
They're tiny fish with titanic impacts, and efforts to keep their numbers from sinking to potentially disastrous levels were enhanced with a pivotal September 2 decision by the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission.
Commission members added another eddy to the rising tide of protection for numerous species known collectively as forage fish by unanimously adopting a management plan for Oregon's jurisdictional sliver of ocean (from the coastline to three nautical miles offshore). While forage fish species have many names, most folks just call them bait and otherwise fail to give them much consideration. Yet scientists say large numbers of these small schooling fish are essential to maintain thriving Pacific Coast ecosystems, because they provide a primary food source for many commercially marketable fish species (among them salmon, lingcod, hake, halibut and tuna), as well as marine mammals and seabirds.
Paul Shively, who leads Pacific Ocean conservation efforts for Pew Charitable Trusts from their Portland-based office, said Oregon "is another piece of the puzzle to protect this key part of the marine food web" off the Pacific coast.
Caren Braby, manager of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Marine Resources Program, said the state's plan hooks protection of forage species in Oregon's jurisdictional waters to similar policies off the coasts of Washington and California, and to NOAA Fisheries policies in federal offshore waters (from three to 200 nautical miles).
Oregon's plan reflects action taken by the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) in March 2015 to protect seven broad groups of forage fish, representing hundreds of species, from new commercial fishery development. With jurisdiction over the 317,690-square-mile exclusive economic zone off Washington, Oregon and California, the PFMC is one of eight regional fishery management councils established by the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the principal law governing United States ocean fisheries. Congress first adopted the act in 1976 to extend control of US waters to 200 nautical miles; phase out foreign fishing activities within that area; prevent overfishing, especially by foreign fleets; allow overfished stocks to recover; and to conserve and manage the nation's fishing resources.
Although amended several times since its inception, the law's basic premises remain, especially its focus on conserving fishing resources.
As the culmination of more than five years of scientific study and public input, forage fish management plans are the first result to emerge from an evolving trend in making Pacific fisheries management decisions: considering the health of the overall ocean ecosystem instead of focusing on individual species.
Pew's Shively immersed himself in that public process, helping to coordinate a broad consensus for forage fish protection in both state and federal territorial waters from among individuals, groups and organizations who often find themselves at odds with each other, including commercial and recreational fishermen, fishery managers and conservationists.
"Oregon has a long history of conserving its natural heritage," said Shively, noting that a healthy marine ecosystem "is not only a cultural and natural legacy worth protecting on its own merit," but also "a tremendous economic asset" for the state.
Commercial and recreational fisheries alone haul $450 million or more per year into the state's economy.
In Oregon, fishery managers and fishermen note, those numbers do not encompass the six broad groups of forage fish species protected by the new management plan – including smelt, Pacific sand lance, Pacific saury, silversides, and pelagic squid (except Humboldt squid) – because Oregon fishing fleets don't pursue them. The state plan excludes round and thread herring (not found in Oregon waters), as well as Pacific herring, sardines and anchovies, which are federally-managed commercial fisheries operating under long-established fishery management plans.
Even with those plans in place, targeted harvest species often struggle.
Dwindling fish numbers have kept Oregon's Pacific herring harvest almost nil for the past several years, but fishermen still hold permits and fishery managers say they could start fishing if or when fish numbers improve.
A September 27 decision by Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife fishery managers restricted commercial anchovy fishing in the Columbia River, beginning in October. Maggie Sommer, ODFW marine fisheries manager, said fishermen had already landed about 5,200 metric tons of anchovies in Oregon this year, almost all of it netted from the Columbia River. The overall annual catch from Oregon and Washington waters – set by the PFMC – is 9,750 metric tons. In previous years, the catch primarily went as bait for recreational salmon and tuna fisheries, but market analysts say most of the anchovies landed in Oregon in 2016 are destined for human consumption.
Anchovy numbers have dropped during the past decade, and fishery managers and researchers blame fluctuating ocean temperatures and a lack of zooplankton, the anchovies' favorite food. Fishery managers say they'll evaluate the fishery to determine how to strike a balance between economic benefits and conservation goals during the 2017 season.
Fishermen say this year's anchovy fishery in Oregon fills in some of the gap left by the closure of sardine fishing.
Operating in one of the most lucrative fisheries off the California, Oregon and Washington coasts, commercial sardine boats haul in $10 million to $20 million in annual revenue. But since 2007, the Pacific Coast sardine population has collapsed due to changing ocean conditions and other factors, including allegations of overfishing, Scientists documented a 90 percent drop in sardine numbers, prompting the PFMC to close the fishery along the entire coast in 2015 and 2016 to give the species a chance to recover.
The idea of protecting other forage fish bobbed up in the wake of concerns about those dwindling and drastically fluctuating sardine and anchovy populations.
"Sardines and anchovies are great examples of forage fish whose critical roles in the ocean food web are rarely noticed until their numbers plummet," Shively noted.
A 2012 report by an international research task force backed that claim. The 13 researchers on the Lenfest Task Force recommended cutting global harvests of forage fish, deeming them "twice as valuable in the water as in a net." Forage fish generate $5.6 billion worldwide if caught, but the researchers concluded they're worth at least $11.3 billion if properly managed, because of their role as a food source for so many other vital species.
"It is economically and biologically imperative that we develop smarter management for these small, but significant species," said researcher Ellen Pikitch of Stony Brook University in New York. "Traditionally, we have been managing fisheries for forage species in a manner that cannot sustain the food webs or some of the industries they support."
In one of the most comprehensive and extensive analyses ever, the researchers reviewed forage fisheries worldwide and analyzed 82 marine ecosystem models. They determined that small schooling fish play a key role in ocean food webs by consuming phytoplankton and then becoming prey themselves. Predators switch from one forage fish species to another, depending on their abundance.
The Pacific Coast sardine fishery has a "harvest control rule." It sets the harvest at 10 percent of the overall stock, and when population drops below a particular level, fishing stops. Task force members recommended similar conservative catch limits for all critical forage fish species, due to their vulnerability to overfishing and collapse.
They also recommended ecosystem-based management of forage fish to avoid situations like eulachon smelt, which were placed on the endangered species list not long ago. Depleted stocks don't always readily recover.
Because forage fish populations go through such major fluctuations, Oregon State University researcher Selina Heppell said conservative management is vital. Status and relative importance of each species can be hard to evaluate, partly because of those fluctuations and partly because many species migrate long distances. Relative health of populations and differences in fisheries management also play roles.
The study suggested cutting forage fisheries by half in many ecosystems to leave twice as many forage fish in the oceans; tailoring management to available information; considering where and when to allow fishing; and focusing on predators, which they considered the key piece.
"Around the globe, we've seen how removing too many forage fish can significantly affect predators and people who rely on that system's resources for their livelihoods," said Edward Houde from the University of Maryland. "We need to be more precautionary in how we manage forage fish in ecosystems we know very little about."
Conservationists and fishery managers say that voracious global demand for forage fish – mostly to produce fishmeal for aquaculture and agriculture – calls for preemptive action to protect those species. The plans now in place will prevent new commercial fisheries from developing for forage fish without careful consideration and analysis of the potential effects on the ocean ecosystem and existing fisheries.
It took time and a strong public effort, but with the Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission's decision, the Pacific coast now has precautionary forage fish management plans in place in state and federal territorial seas.
The Washington Fish and Wildlife Commission had already adopted a forage fish management plan in 1998. NOAA Fisheries enacted regulations in May 2016 to enforce the PFMC's forage fish decision, which applies to harvest in all federal ocean waters off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California. Oregon's regulations become effective January 1, 2017.
They will, Braby noted, "allow our existing fisheries to thrive while preventing new forage fish fisheries from forming without thorough consideration and review."
California Department of Fish and Wildlife managers are currently developing a similar plan for their state waters, expected to take effect in 2017.
"To California's credit, they have had a very forward-looking and strong forage species policy on the books since 2012," said Pew's Gilly Lyons. "It's just that the policy doesn't include implementing language or regulatory authority."
It's extremely rare when commercial fishermen, sport fishermen, and conservation groups agree on specific ocean and fishery management policies. Heppell, who is also on the PFMC science team, said commercial and recreational fishing groups are as concerned about forage fish as anyone else, because their livelihoods depend on those little species.
"From the standpoint of the men and women who earn their living from commercial fishing, it's a way to protect fishing opportunity and fishermen's investments by keeping marine ecosystems healthy and resilient," Shively said. "Fishermen, scientists and ocean advocates all understand that little fish are a big deal for ocean health."
In the ocean, schooling forage fish form what's called a bait ball as a last-resort defensive measure against predators. Once they abandon their normal free streaming behavior and form into a tight bait ball, they're much easier prey. While discussing the potential forage fish management plan, folks from those disparate groups formed a different sort of "bait ball" – setting aside their free-streaming differences and reaching tight agreement that drew others in, and convinced fishery managers to protect the tiny fish with titanic impacts.