Small fish receive landmark protections off West Coast

Wisdom, the 63+ year old Laysan Albatross, the oldest known living wild bird (left side).  Photo by Greg Joder

Earlier this week the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, responsible for managing fish stocks in federal waters (3 to 200 miles) off of California, Oregon and Washington, took a landmark step to protect the forage fish that feed our west coast marine birds and wildlife. The plan adopted Tuesday will prohibit any new commercial fishery targeting forage fish, unless the operation can first show that it wouldn't harm the larger ecosystem. The fish and invertebrates that will be permanently protected by this action are critical for marine birds including California Least Tern, Common Murre, Marbled Murrelet, Sooty Shearwater, Black-footed Albatross and dozens of other visiting and resident species.

Specifically, the action will “prevent fisheries from developing on these species without scientific information on harvest sustainability and potential ecological effects.” The action also addresses the need to prevent the incidental bycatch of these species caught in directed fisheries, from growing. This action is important because currently, these key forage species- which include sand lance, Pacific saury, smelts, round and thread herring, mesopelagic fishes, silversides, and nearly all pelagic squids – lack any substantive protection from the development of new commercial fisheries. Some of these species are commercially fished in other parts of the world, and the threat is growing as global  fishing pressure on small forage fish continues to increase. The Council's action was picked up in the press. 

Once this action is promulgated in regulations in the coming months, the bar will be set very high for initiating fisheries on these species, which together comprise all the important currently unprotected and unmanaged taxonomic groups. (Other key forage species such as anchovy, sardine, and rockfish are commercially fished, and are managed through existing plans.) This action complements 2012 action to protect forage fish in California state waters.

Audubon California and the Audubon Society of Portland partnered with Pew Trusts, Oceana  and other groups over the last three years to advocate for these protections. Sea and Sage Audubon and other California, Oregon and Washington chapters voiced support at key junctures. Joe Liebezeit, the marine program lead at the Audubon Society of Portland, testified eloquently this week on the Council floor, noting that “60,000 Common Murres breeding at Yaquina Head feed primarily on Osmerid smelt, one of the species protected through this action.”

In California, species that will benefit include California Least Tern, which often provisions young with Pacific saury; Marbled Murrelet, which feed its young with sand lance and smelt; Black-footed albatross and Sooty Shearwater, which require pelagic squid which rise to the surface when they die, dotting the high Pacific with and essential food source for these wide-ranging species; and dozens of other examples. Laysan Albatross such as Wisdom, the oldest known wild bird (pictured above) will benefit from the protection of neon flying squid and other little known yet essential squids and "mesopelagic" fish.

We thank all of you who sent letters to the Pacific Fishery Management Council over the past several years, in support of this action. Your voices made a difference. We are encouraged by this important victory, and the Audubon network on the west coast will continue to work together to protect the food base for our seabirds, marine ducks and shorebirds.

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