The humble, tiny forage fish -- think herring or smelt -- may appear to play small roles in a vast ocean, but don't let their size deceive you. Forage fish are truly the pillars of healthy ocean ecosystems and sustainable marine food webs, supporting the diets of whales, dolphins, sea lions, many types of fish and millions of seabirds. And when well-managed, they will play a key role in feeding people, too.
Last month, the Pacific Fishery Management Council, one of eight regional fishery management councils in the U.S., took a tremendous step forward towards protecting these important fish. In a groundbreaking move, the Council voted unanimously to protect seven groups of forage fish from 3 to 200 nautical miles offshore Washington, Oregon and California. The new rules protect these fish by requiring that both human needs and ecosystem benefits are considered if these small fish are ever commercially targeted.
Now, hundreds of forage fish species within these seven groups -- round and thread herring, mesopelagic fishes, Pacific sand lance, Pacific saury, Silversides, Osmerid smelts and pelagic squids (other than Humboldt squid) -- are safeguarded. These fish and squid play vital roles in the foundation of the California Current ecosystem, one of the most globally important and productive ecosystems in the world that supports endangered sea turtles, fragile corals, large whales, economically important fisheries and much more.
The Council's decision is truly a landmark move that could act as a model for a shift in fisheries management. Historically, most fisheries have been managed on a species by species basis, focusing on maximum catch and profits without taking into account the needs of the ecosystem as a whole. But under this new approach, the Council is protecting fisheries with an ecosystem-based method that will protect wildlife species, help support recreationally and commercially important fisheries and ensure long-term sustainability of the ecosystem into the future.
This victory also marks a tremendous achievement for Oceana, who has called on the Council since 2009 to protect these forage fish. Protections are important to ensure there is abundant prey for ocean predators and a healthy source of high protein, heart-healthy fish for human consumption for generations to come. It is expected that the National Marine Fisheries Service will implement the Council's recommendation after a required federal rulemaking process.
While this action is a big step forward, fisheries for forage fish like Pacific sardine and anchovy desperately need a better management approach. This approach should consider how much of these important fish must be left in the ocean to support other marine life, provide for continued fishing opportunities and supply healthy meals to people into the future.
There are already 7 billion people on Earth, and this figure is expected to grow to a staggering 9 billion people by 2050. If existing forage fisheries are managed sustainably, with an ecosystem-based approach, these small fish could directly feed millions more people a healthy seafood meal each day, helping to meet some of the world's hunger needs while simultaneously sustaining the oceans.