Efforts growing to control the smaller fish of the seas

Aug 17, 2011

WARRENTON, Ore. – Perhaps you've had salmon, tuna or swordfish for dinner recently. Or maybe it's on the menu tonight. Every big fish that lands on your plate got that big by eating lots and lots of little fish.

If you don't have abundant small fish in the ocean, you won't have the big fish. That's why some scientists, fishery managers and advocacy groups are paying more attention to the small prey in the sea.

Some environmental group now also want tighter regulation, and that's making fishermen nervous.

Seeing what birds eat

Fisheries biologist Jen Zamon learned lots of things in grad school. How to get a freshly captured seabird to barf in a bucket was not one of them, but some squirts of warm water down the gullet and squeezing the tummy does the trick.

Zamon and her team from the NOAA research station in Warrenton, Ore., want to know what fish the diving birds at the mouth of the Columbia River are eating.

Jen Zamon, examing fresh vomit: "Yeah, it's definitely anchovies."

The day before Zamon says the puke samples mostly contained half-digested surf smelt. Other examples of prey fish include sardines, herring and mackerel.

"Things like sardines and anchovy, which are extremely abundant, are very important not just for fishery, but for feeding other creatures in the food web – mammals, birds, larger fish. It's very nice, we know these bird species are indicators of where these fish species of interest are," Zamon said.

Small fish protection

This seabird dining survey is just one example of scientists paying greater attention to the fortunes of smaller fish. A sea change is even more noticeable among policy makers, managers and some environmental groups. Earlier this year, the Pew Environment Group started a campaign to protect small, schooling fish.

"This issue is picking up more and more steam all across the nation. There's more and more attention, more and more science pointing to the fact that we need to make sure there's enough food in the oceans," said Paul Shively, who manages the campaign out of Portland.

A separate group called Oceana is running a similar healthy ocean campaign. Conservationists report what they see as progress in moving fishery managers to base decisions not just on the "big money" fish, but on the entire ocean food web. Insiders call this "ecosystem-based management."

But when talks turns to limits on fishing for small, schooling fish, then resistance crops up. Ocean advocates want West Coast fishery managers to cap quotas for bait fish at current levels and put a moratorium on any new fisheries.

Pushback on more rules

Commercial fisherman Ryan Kapp of Bellingham argues the West Coast sardine, anchovy and herring fisheries are already quite conservatively managed.

"Seeing that none of these stocks are overfished or even approaching overfishing, I just a soon leave it alone. We have enough regulations to keep track of as it is," Kapp said.

Environmentalists worry rising global demand for seafood and fish meal will put pressure on Pacific bait fish. At the Pew Environment Group, Paul Shively invokes the precautionary principal.

"We don't need to wait until there is a crisis in our oceans to address an issue. For so many years, we've looked at our oceans and we wait until there is a collapse of a fishery before we take action. We're saying it doesn't hurt to have a new paradigm where perhaps we take some precautionary measures," Shively said.

He has made that case to federal fishery advisors including Bob Emmett, a marine biologist with the federal science agency NOAA. Emmett says it's premature to come down with a hard, regulatory hand.

"There are still a lot of data needs. If you are actively managing these fishes, that means you have a lot of information. We don't believe at the time that we really have it," he said.

The fortunes of small fish are also surfacing at the state level. The California Legislature is considering a law to promote ecosystem-based management in nearshore state waters.

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