Forage fish bill stands to make a huge difference for marine birds

Bipartisan Forage Fish Conservation Act is the next step toward safeguarding food for struggling seabirds.

Northern anchovy are a vital food resource for marine birds. Photo: Jesse Peterson

Audubon California is joining our colleagues in Washington, D.C., and dozens of chapters in California and around the country, in supporting new federal legislation to protect the small fish that marine birds need to survive. Called the Forage Fish Conservation Act, this new legislation amends the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA), the primary law that governs ocean fish management in U.S. federal waters through eight regional fishery management councils, to include forage fish (e.g. herring, anchovy, sardine, krill and some small crustaceans) for the first time.

Forage fish and invertebrates are the beating heart of the ocean. They’re small fish with big impact. Research shows that marine and coastal birds such as terns, skimmers, pelicans, albatrosses, grebes, and cormorants need forage fish to be sustained at a specific level to sustain healthy development. In other words, we need to maintain at least a third of a specific fish’s historical population for the birds to survive. That’s why Audubon California and chapters such as Sea & Sage, San Diego Audubon, and Audubon Society of Portland, fight to protect these small fish.

On the West Coast, Audubon and our partners have won major protections for forage fish. These include a ban on fishing for krill off the West Coast (Oceana gets specific credit for that one), a prohibition on fishing for dozens of currently unfished species until it can be prove fishing effort will not negatively impact birds and other predators, marine protected areas to allow fish to repopulate, and a new legal framework for managing Pacific herring in California. Yet, there is more to do here, such as requiring fisheries managers to better account for the needs of predators when setting annual catch limits on forage fish, and requiring more science attention to understand predator needs for species and amounts of forage fish. The forage bill will accomplish these goals.

We also want to see our wins duplicated in the Gulf of Mexico and Atlantic Seaboard. Some very important forage fish in the Atlantic for puffins, terns, and other birds are being impacted by overfishing and climate change. The Audubon family extends from sea to shining sea, and with this bill, our voices are raised as one for these small fish with a big impact for birds.

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