The Value of Little Fish

Standing on the sidewalk in downtown Santa Cruz, I gaze upon a fish. Actually several fish.  An entire ocean ecosystem really.  Captured artistically in bronze.  The dramatic sculpture depicts a spiral of sharks, tuna, salmon, and marine mammals, connected to and supported by a swirling mass of smaller fish – sardines or maybe anchovies. Commonly known as ‘bait fish’ or ‘forage fish’, these small fish are the base of the food chain, the vital foundation that supports all the larger fish in the ocean.  Scientists warn that they need better protection around the globe.

This week, the Pacific Fishery Management Council took a bold and important step towards protecting forage fish and in turn the ocean ecosystem itself.  Charged with setting catch limits, seasons and gear restrictions designed to ensure the long-term catch of a dizzying array of fisheries, this week’s action was somewhat unusual.  Instead of deciding how – and how many – fish should be caught, the Pacific Council basically decided that some fish shouldn’t be caught at all. At least not yet.

The Pacific Council declared, by unanimous vote, to “recognize the importance of forage fish to the marine ecosystem off our coast, and to provide adequate protection for forage fish.”  They have essentially decided to “freeze the menu” of existing forage fisheries until additional science demonstrates that more fishing won’t harm the broader ecosystem.  The Pacific Council should be commended by fishermen and conservationists alike for taking this proactive step.

Why are these little fish such a big deal? As two leading California fishermen put it in a recent joint opinion piece in the Sacramento Bee, “big fish need little fish”.  We can’t have large fish on our plate if we don’t have enough small fish in the ocean to nourish them.  But forage fish also benefit whales, dolphins, and seabirds and our multi-billion dollar coastal tourism economy.

The Pacific Council’s decision is especially important given that our ocean is changing.  It is getting demonstrably warmer and more acidic in the face of rising carbon dioxide in the atmosphere.  These changes may impact many microscopic, shelled animals that are themselves prey for forage fish.  While we can’t yet predict the precise nature of the changes to come, we know they are coming and that they put the ocean at risk.  Preparing for, and responding to, the many changes that are already underway requires instituting a truly ecosystem-based approach to fishery management – beginning with forage fish.

The Pacific Council’s decision to prevent the development of new forage fish fisheries is a good first step to help ensure our oceans have the resilience to adapt to the changes we know are coming.  By doing so, we can ensure that in the future the sidewalk in Santa Cruz won’t be the only place you can gaze upon a vibrant ocean food web.

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