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Forage Fish - From Ecosystems to Markets

imagePI: Dr. Daniel Pauly, University of British Columbia*

*External grantee

Completed 2008

“Forage fish” are small, ocean-dwelling prey fish – including anchovies, herring, sardines, and menhaden -- that are a critical food source for marine mammals, seabirds, and many larger fish species. Although excessive removal of these fish can undermine or even collapse marine food webs, they are increasingly being exploited by industrial scale fisheries, with little management or oversight. The Institute for Ocean Conservation Science has been examining the complex role of forage fish in marine environments and the intense fishing pressure on them.

With primary support from the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University, internationally renowned marine scientist Dr. Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver and colleagues conducted a nine-year study focusing on the integral role that forage fish play in marine ecosystems and the implications of removing them in excessive numbers. Entitled “Forage Fish: From Ecosystems to Markets” and published in 2008 in the Annual Review of Environment and Resources, the study found that nearly one-third of the fish taken from the world’s oceans each year are forage fish. Even more remarkable was that of the 31.5 million tons of forage fish caught annually, 90 percent are ground up and turned into fish meal to feed farm-raised fish, pigs, and poultry, and into fish oil, squandering a precious food resource for humans. This Institute-funded study was an important product of the nine-year Sea Around Us Project, a partnership between the University of British Columbia and The Pew Charitable Trusts, and represents the most comprehensive, global study of forage fisheries to date.

Despite the large-scale, global extraction of forage fish, there are few management plans for these species and very little is known about their role in the marine ecosystems. Dr. Pauly, co-author Dr. Jacqueline Alder, and colleagues conclude that other feeds should be used for farmed animals so that these forage fish can be brought to market for larger-scale human consumption, since these species are highly nutritious. Although feeds derived from soy and other land-based crops are available and are used, fishmeal and fish oil have skyrocketed in popularity because forage fish are easy to catch in large numbers and hence, relatively inexpensive. Remarkably, the study found that pigs and poultry around the world consume more than double the seafood eaten by Japanese consumers and six times the amount consumed by the U.S. market. “The use of forage fish for animal husbandry competes directly with human consumption in some areas of the world,” the authors write. “As forage fisheries decline, the food security of nations dependent on these small pelagic fish is threatened.” Excessive removal of forage fish could also hurt populations of larger fish, seabirds and marine mammals that rely upon them as food.

The Sea Around Us Project was established in 1999 at the University of British Columbia to study the impact of fishing on the world’s marine ecosystems. Dr. Pauly and his team have collected and organized an immense amount of data on the world’s fish catches, examining trends in catches dating back to the 1950s. The massive database maps the global distribution of forage fisheries, provides information on calculated landings in the past six decades, details the changes in species composition of fishmeal, and characterizes consumption by seabirds in different world regions. It also analyzes human use of forage fish for trade, direct consumption, and the production of fish meal, fish oil, and fertilizer.

This research revealed that the consumption, trade, and use of forage fish in industrial production have experienced a significant global increase since 1961. Forage fish stocks in the United States and Latin America are now considered fully exploited. Researchers determined that landing of forage fish peaked by the 1970s and that high catch levels are unlikely to be obtained in the future. Due to these species’ population decline, commercial industries are using fish from higher trophic levels to meet the need for fishmeal and fish oil – a trend that has increased in the last 20 years.

Researchers also examined how the dispersion of the organic pollutant dioxin in the atmosphere leads to this chemical being found in forage fish and, in turn, throughout food webs. Mapping and modeling approaches developed by the Sea Around Us Project revealed that approximately one-third of globally produced and atmospherically-transported dioxins are annually deposited directly into marine environments. Forage fish exposure to these harmful carcinogens consequently poses health risks to animals and humans that consume small ocean-dwelling (pelagic) fish either directly or through fish meal and fish oil.

Although our understanding of the role that forage fish play in marine ecosystems is still limited, researchers recommend that an ecosystem-based approach to managing these fisheries be taken to ensure that a sustainable balance between human food security, industrial production demands, and the needs of predators in marine webs is achieved.

More Information

Read the abstract of “Forage Fish: From Ecosystems to Markets"

Learn more about the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, which is developing scientific approaches to sustainably manage forage fisheries using ecosystem-based fisheries management.

Visit the UBC Fisheries Centre website

Daniel Pauly, PhD's bio

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