Protecting prey fish, the predator fish and fisheries that depend on them, as well as the survival of marine mammals and seabirds, is sound environmental and economic policy. It’s a win for all of us, for wild oceans and the future of fishing.
Preserving the ocean’s forage base is not only the first step in advancing an ecosystems approach to managing fisheries, it is an effort to prevent irreversible damage to marine ecosystems, while at the same time moving away, once and for all, from ecologically-harmful policies that manage each species to maximize yields to fisheries, without regard for the impact on other species in the food web or the community as a whole.
For decades now, we’ve been “fishing down the food web”, that is, overfishing populations of high-value ocean predators, such as cod and tuna, then shifting fishing pressure to lower trophic level species, most notably small schooling prey species like herring, mackerel, menhaden and squid. As a result, today’s fishery managers are struggling to control two trains going in opposite directions on different tracks.
As we work to restore a long list of predatory fish to healthy levels, the demand for prey naturally increases. But the available supply of food – the overall forage base available to them – is dwindling. High-volume fisheries, whose principal goals are netting sizeable yields for industrial uses, indiscriminately target a wide range of forage fish – Atlantic menhaden, Pacific sardine, squid, mackerel, sea herring – taking imperiled species such as river herring and shad in the process.
Generally speaking, the ocean’s forage base is at an historic low, and pressures on it are expected to rise in the future. Wild fisheries long ago surpassed their ability to feed the world. Ironically, the explosive growth of open ocean aquaculture as an alternative threatens to exacerbate the problem by increasing demand for the use of wild forage fish as feed.
Wild Oceans is seeking to fundamentally change the way we conserve and manage fisheries for important prey species. Our activities over the last decade or more have made conserving the ocean’s prey base a national environmental priority, a sea change that will produce lasting benefits for wild oceans and the future of fishing for so many species we love and care about, from striped marlin to striped bass and everything in between. To make this sea change, we are working to, among other things, monitor the health of the overall ocean forage base, conserve those prey species that we fish for according to precautionary standards (see The Berkeley Criterion), and prevent new fisheries for unmanaged species before we fully understand the impacts of fishing on the broader ecosystem.
Wild Oceans is also a proud partner in the Florida Forage Fish Coalition. Coalition partners play an important role in supporting, promoting and communicating forage fish research to managers, stakeholders and the general public. Funds raised through the Florida Forage Fish Research Program provide fellowships to graduate students at Florida universities who collaborate with the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission’s Fish and Wildlife Research Institute (FWRI) to advance our understanding of forage fish. The program produces high-quality research on the value of forage fish to predators and marine habitats, builds collaborative partnerships between academia and FWRI, and fosters the next generation of fisheries scientists.