Protecting the Mid-Atlantic’s Unmanaged Prey

Council Poised to Advance Conservation of the Region’s Forage Base

By Charles Homler (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

By Charles Homler (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0], via Wikimedia Commons

Public comment is being sought by the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council on an action designed “to prohibit the development of new, or expansion of existing, directed fisheries on unmanaged forage species until adequate scientific information is available to promote ecosystem sustainability.” Anglers, wildlife enthusiasts and all those who recognize the importance of a healthy forage base for sustaining the ocean food web are strongly encouraged to weigh in.

The Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment will amend all the Council’s relevant fishery management plans (FMPs) in order to protect a broad range of prey species that are important to council-managed predators and the ecosystem as a whole. These “ecosystem component (EC) species,” as defined by NOAA Fisheries, are not targeted by fisheries, but their designation in FMPs gives councils authority to develop strategies to conserve them.

The list of forage species the Council is proposing to protect is impressive and includes 17 taxonomic groupings of more than 100 species.  Sand lance, silversides, round herring, Spanish sardine, anchovies, false albacore and ballyhoo are among the prey fish that could be safeguarded from becoming targets of new commercial fisheries.

Chub mackerel is a standout on the list and speaks to the urgency of precautionary measures to protect unmanaged forage.  As the amendment was developing, the Council learned that a commercial fishery for chub mackerel has been emerging over the last few years, with annual landings approaching 5 million pounds.  Catches, nearly all of which occur in summer months offshore of the mid-Atlantic states, are being taken by a small fleet of large trawlers.  This concentrated fishing could jeopardize highly migratory species (tuna, billfish, swordfish and sharks), which depend on chub to satisfy their diet needs as they transit through the region.

Council advisors opposed the EC designation for chub mackerel, insisting that the fishery warrants management as a stock in the fishery, which entails requirements to prevent overfishing.  The Council responded with a separate suite of chub mackerel alternatives that includes stocks in a fishery designation. Because a crucial piece of the amendment’s scope is defining a pathway for managing forage fisheries sustainably, the Council should seize the opportunity to develop a management plan for chub mackerel that  prevents negative impacts to the ecosystem and that explicitly recognizes the economic value of leaving chub mackerel in the water to support dependent predators, many of which are highly valuable to recreational fishermen.

The Mid-Atlantic Council is poised to make substantial progress toward ecosystem-based management as it moves to a final vote on the Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment at the Council’s August meeting in Virginia Beach.

Please join Wild Oceans in commending the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council for making conservation of the forage base a priority, and urging the Council to select robust alternatives for the final draft.  The comment period closes June 17th.

Here are the Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment alternatives that Wild Oceans supports:

♦     2B: Designate the entire proposed list of forage species (other than chub mackerel) as Ecosystem Component Species (ECs) and implement an incidental possession limit of 1,700 pounds of all ECs combined per trip.

♦     3Bii: Manage chub mackerel as a stock in the fishery, setting an interim Acceptable Biological Catch (ABC) cap at the 5-year landings average (1.75 million pounds) until the management plan is complete.  Directed fishing should close before the cap is reached to allow for incidental catch (at a 10,000-pound limit).

♦     4C & 4Cii: Require an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) prior to development of new or expansion of existing fisheries for ECs, and develop a new Council policy to review EFPs to ensure they are consistent with the purpose of the amendment.

♦     5A, 5B, 5Ci, 5Cii & 5Dii: These administrative alternatives will strengthen the implementation of the amendment by: 1) updating the region’s regulatory list of authorized gears and fisheries, 2) enhancing monitoring & reporting, 3) requiring a federal permit to retain the protected unmanaged forage species; and, 4) clearly defining the geographic boundary for the action as federal waters from the state line separating New York and Connecticut (extended seaward) to Cape Hatteras, North Carolina.

For more information about the Unmanaged Forage Omnibus Amendment, see the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council’s web site.