Forage fish underpin many marine ecosystems around the world, serving as a primary food source for larger fish, marine mammals, and seabirds. They eat plankton and, as prey, serve as a conduit passing energy to larger animals. Examples of forage fish include sardines, anchovies, herring, sand lance, and Atlantic menhaden (locally known in the U.S. mid-Atlantic as “bunker”). Other species of ‘forage fish’ are not actually fish at all, but provide a similar function as food for other marine life, like krill in Antarctica.
Because forage fish feed dolphins, whales, shorebirds, tunas, etc., they in turn support healthy wildlife and fishing opportunities in our oceans and estuaries. They sustain the whales we delight in seeing, the seabird colonies we enjoy viewing, and the wild fish that provide food and recreation.
Forage fish populations fluctuate naturally and environmental conditions can affect their numbers. Collapses in forage fish populations are more likely when fishing doesn’t ease during times when populations are naturally lower. Collapses have occurred throughout history, including the most famous example, Pacific sardine off the California coast during the 1950’s.
Such collapses mean that there are much less fish to catch, and much less fish for the wild animals who depend on them. A reduction in available prey– either through fishing, a natural “low population phase,” or both– can have a detrimental impact on predator populations. For these animals, especially seabirds, increased competition for food, longer foraging distances, and decreases in reproduction can all result from a lack of forage fish.
It is this concern that prompted the initiation of a task force to study how the consumption needs of predators could be taken into account when setting catch limits for forage fish.
Atlantic menhaden, locally known as bunker, have been called “the most important fish in the sea.” These fish are known to have been used by Native Americans as fertilizer, and since then have been harvested in vast numbers for various kinds of commercial use. In recent years, there has been increasing concern surrounding the method and volume of the menhaden fishery (which is operated by one company, Omega Protein, on the East Coast of the U.S.). Since around 2012, harvest quotas for menhaden have been in place, and in 2015, the management body responsible for the coastwide management of menhaden, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, began considering the use of ecological-based reference points (ERPs) – a key recommendation of the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force.
Instead of simply setting quotas based on the status of the menhaden population alone, ERPs would consider the needs of predators such as striped bass, bluefish, weakfish, and spiny dogfish. IOCS advocated for this approach, and our Executive Director, Dr. Ellen Pikitch, spearheaded a scientist's letter in 2017 urging the ASMFC to adopt ecosystem-based options for menhaden. One of the options on the table was a “rule of thumb” option directly based on the Task Force’s work. The Commission, however, deemed the options were not species-specific enough at the time.
After three additional years of scientific analysis by an expert working group working within the ASMFC, the Commission voted in August 2020 to move ahead with using ecosystem-based harvest rules, a milestone and model for future fishery management decisions.
IOCS is proud to have contributed to the science leading to this landmark decision!