Sardines netted off of Astoria await storage, ice, then processing on the deck of a sardine boat. (Photo by Ross William Hamilton/The Oregonian)
By Kelly House | The Oregonian/OregonLive The Oregonian on March 10, 2015 at 12:08 PM, updated March 10, 2015 at 12:14 PM
Pacific coast fishery managers on Tuesday made a landmark decision to protect species at the bottom of the ocean food chain. The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which regulates the fishing industry in federal waters off California, Oregon and Washington, voted during a meeting in Vancouver to ban all new forage fisheries unless fishermen who want to start one can prove they can do so without harming the ecosystem. Forage fish, or baitfish, are small species such as sardines, smelt and krill that are a vital food source for larger fish, marine mammals and birds. Marine conservation groups lauded the decision as a major win for an ecosystem struggling to respond to a host of pressures including fishing, climate change and ocean acidification. “This is a great step for ocean health,” said Paul Shively, who leads the Pew Charitable Trusts’ Pacific Ocean conservation efforts. Existing fisheries for Pacific sardine, anchovies and other forage fish will not be affected under the new rules, but hundreds of species that are currently unregulated, such as saury and sand lance, will gain protections.
Although the rules only apply to federal waters between three miles and 200 miles offshore, Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is expected to craft similar rules restricting new fisheries in state-regulated near shore waters.
The new rules are the council’s first act under a new management style that encourages managers to make decisions with the health of the entire ecosystem in mind, rather than with a focus on individual species. “It’s a real paradigm shift in how we look at fisheries management,” Shively said. News that Pacific sardine populations have collapsed so deeply they may be unfishable this year underscore the need for increased protections, said Ben Enticknap, a senior scientist for Oceana. Ripple effects from the collapse are already being blamed for impacts on other species. For example, a lack of food sources including sardines has been implicated in the mass starvation of sea lions in California this year. “By protecting the health of our ocean ecosystem, the council is getting out in front of a crisis before it happens,” Enticknap said. Unlike larger species that are typically sold for human consumption, forage fish are often turned into fishmeal for use at fish farms or turned into fish oil. When left in the water, they help bolster populations of predator species such as salmon and rockfish by offering them something to eat. For that reason, an international scientific task force estimated in 2012 that a forage fish left in the water is worth twice as much as one brought up in a fisherman’s net. The new policy won’t take effect until the National Marine Fishery Service approves it, a process that could take several months. The national agency will also craft language to limit the amount of restricted species fishermen can accidentally bring up in their nets while fishing for approved species.