Coastal Resiliency

Shortbelly Rockfish: An unlikely forage fish rockstar

Speak up for this critical seafood for seabirds, including Marbled Murrelets, Pigeon Guillemot, Rhinoceros Auklets, Common Murre, Brandt’s Cormorant, and California Least Tern

Article authored by Joe Liebezeit, Staff Scientist, Portland Audubon

The West Coast Audubon network, including Portland Audubon, has been working together since 2013 to protect the array of forage fish that numerous species of seabirds and coastal birds rely on. Recently, we have been focused on protecting an unlikely fish whose importance has been overlooked: the shortbelly rockfish.

Research indicates shortbelly rockfish larvae are super-abundant off the west coast. Because of their abundance, size, and energetic profile they are one of the most important prey items for Chinook salmon and for many seabirds including Marbled Murrelets, Rhinoceros Auklets, Common Murre, Brandt’s Cormorant, and California Least Tern. 

Increasing juvenile rockfish abundance has been correlated with higher Marbled Murrelet breeding success. In California, rockfish are frequently observed as the most prevalent prey item in chick diets of Common Murre, Pigeon Guillemot, and Rhinoceros Auklet when anchovies and sardines are in low abundance.

We have an opportunity over the coming two years to ensure this critical seabird food is protected from overfishing. We will need activist voices to succeed.

Forage fish including herring, sardines, and anchovies are a critical link in the ocean ecosystem, providing sustenance for many top predators like salmon, marine mammals, and seabirds. Seabirds are experiencing some of the most dramatic declines of any bird group, which is of high concern to Audubon members in Oregon who love the coast and ocean. At the same time, commercial fishing pressure on forage fish is increasing to support fishmeal production for a growing global aquaculture industry around the world. This means we have to continue to do our best to protect these little fish that mean so much for a healthy marine ecosystem.

Several years ago, Portland Audubon joined with Audubon California for an advocacy effort to protect dozens of forage fish species including round and thread herring, Pacific sandlance, Pacific saury, silversides, Osmerid smelts, mesopelagic fishes, and several pelagic squid species. This effort resulted in The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) identifying these species as “ecosystem component” species prohibiting any level of directed harvest without a full scientific review.

This action was supported by sportfishing and coastal businesses. It was a huge win for the conservation community and great news for seabirds and other top marine predators that depend on forage fish for food in 318,000 square miles of the Pacific off of Oregon, Washington, and California. Oregon ecotour business owner, Tim Shelmerdine of Oregon Pelagic Tours says, “Protecting forage fish makes sense for our marine ecosystems, and allows people to experience them through businesses like mine.”

But this action did not include shortbelly rockfish, due to its already being in the groundfish fishery management plan as an incidentally caught species. And, it is in the rockfish group—  though it behaves like a “regular” forage fish in that it is small, short-lived, and occurs in large schools.  In 2020, the PFMC unexpectedly removed protections for the shortbelly rockfish, unfortunately leaving it vulnerable to the development of a directed fishery and the real threat of the growing global fishmeal markets. Now the PFMC must put safeguards back in place and ensure shortbelly rockfish are protected from a directed fishery that could impact dependent predators.

Now, we have an opportunity to protect this important fish. At the March 2021 Fisheries Council meeting, Audubon successfully persuaded the Council to begin the process to put in place a prohibition on a fishery for shortbelly rockfish. At the upcoming June and November federal fisheries management meetings, we have the opportunity to move this recommendation along further but we will need your help. 

View the joint Audubon Washington, Oregon, and California letter submitted to the PFMC this week. Stay tuned for an opportunity for public comment so you can speak up for shortbelly rockfish, seabirds, and the marine ecosystem.

In the meantime, check out this short video highlighting the Cape Perpetua Marine Reserve/MPA on the central coast of Oregon and its importance for forage fish for seabirds.

How you can help, right now