By Debbie Kay
If you’ve ever seen a bait ball, or a feeder fish spawn along the West Coast, you know what enormous numbers there can be of fish like eulachon, saury, and sand lance. That abundance makes them the main food source for the next level of predatory fish, and necessary for maintaining healthy salmon populations, as well as marine animals farther up the food chain, like endangered orcas and Stellar’s sea lions, and a wide variety of sea birds. Because of this, National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) has updated laws to prevent new commercial fisheries for feeder fish species that are not targeted now, unless they can show it won’t have an ecological impact to the food chain. In 2009, in a ruling with a similar purpose, they banned commercial krill fishing in the same region, due to the mounting evidence that it was damaging plankton-eating whale populations and feeder fish communities.
Puget Sound Herring: A Cautionary Tale
The policy is predicated on the idea that careful management of forage fish populations will have an indirect positive impact on species of greater immediate concern. Convincing evidence for that theory can be found in the recent history of Puget Sound’s Pacific Herring. A combination of commercial fishing pressure, pollution, shoreline development eliminating their spawning eelgrass beds and disease killed off enough fish that enough individuals from each year’s generation wouldn’t be left to breed. Currently, 70 to 80 percent of most populations will fall to predation from larger fish. This has made herring scarce in the western Washington inland sea, despite intense restoration efforts from groups like Washington Sea Grant, NOAA and WDFW.
A more recent population crash of Pacific sardines is most likely the reason this new law was drafted. Warning signs of the trouble were clear, NMFS scientists said, around five to seven years ago, but nothing was done at the time. Now that they are at critical levels, they have helped the government to re-think their role on forage fish in general.
The New Rule Regarding Feeder Fish
The way that the new rule regarding forage fish is written, there will be no impact to current fisheries that target forage fish species like herring. The law only targets forage fish populations that are not currently being fished for commercially. The rule applies to the region that stretches from 3 to 200 miles off the coast of Washington, Oregon and California.
If the fishing industry can show that the fish species will not negatively impact the populations of threatened and endangered species higher in the food chain, then there may be room to still develop the fishery. This has been done before – When the Stellar’s sea lion was declared endangered, the Bering Sea pollock fishermen lost a designated quota area near the Aleutian Islands that were known to be rookeries. They were able to regain this area, however, by showing that pollock does not have the oil content to keep a stellar’s sea lion alive, and that sea lions in captivity were malnourished when given an unlimited diet of pollock instead of an oilier fish like salmon or herring.