Protect the Prey Base

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.

squidWild 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.

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3. Meeting Resistance

In the first two parts of this series I described how the 2010 Atlantic menhaden stock assessment was scrapped after it triggered the first-ever catch restrictions on the menhaden fishery and replaced with one that allowed catches to increase.  Now we begin to look at why. In a paper presented to the American Fisheries Society...

2. Losing Confidence

Read Pt. 1 I started following and attending Atlantic menhaden stock assessments on a regular basis in 1999.  That same year, as a member of the National Ecosystem Principles Advisory Panel, I’d helped write the panel’s Report to Congress, Ecosystem-Based Fishery Management, in which we’d recommended that a first important step toward EBFM would be...

1. When Everything Changed (Intro)

Confirmation bias is a tendency to search for or interpret information in a way that confirms one’s preconceptions. – Science Daily Up until about eight years ago, the science was considered sound enough to declare Atlantic menhaden “not overfished” and thereby reject repeated calls by anglers and environmentalists to regulate the catch of what many...

Victory for Atlantic Herring

Fed upon by a long list of ocean wildlife from whales to seabirds to tuna, Atlantic herring is the linchpin holding together the food web in New England waters.  On September 25th at its meeting in Plymouth, Massachusetts, the New England Fishery Management Council took groundbreaking action to better manage Atlantic sea herring and to...

Big Victory for Little Fish

Feds Finalize Ban on New West Coast Forage Fisheries By Theresa Labriola –  For more than a decade Wild Oceans has been a champion for a broader ecosystem approach to managing marine fisheries beginning with protections of predator-prey relationships. On April 4, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) issued the Final Rule protecting dozens of prey, or…