The council agreed Sunday to ask its Ecosystem Plan Development team to study ways of protecting forage fish under existing laws. Geoff Shester, California Program Director for advocacy organization Oceana, characterized the request as a "baby step."
"I've seen the council act when it wants to," Shester says. "They're basically just dragging their feet."
Oceana maintains that lax oversight of the Pacific's sardine, herring and mackerel populations will ultimately upset the underwater ecosystem's fragile balance. According to Oceana, salmon and other commercially-important species are better able to withstand pressures such as climate change and ocean acidification when they have plenty of little fish to eat.
While the council didn't reject restrictions outright, the group's willingness to postpone discussion of the issue has persuaded Oceana it needs to redouble its lobbying efforts.
"Looking at potential litigation is not out of the question," Shester says.
A Pacific Fisheries Management Council spokesperson did not return calls seeking comment.
Of the forage species on Oceana's proposed protection list, sardines are perhaps the best known. Activists are especially concerned about the fate of sardines because they're highly attractive to the growing aquaculture industry. The council acknowledged its sardine management strategy is in need of updating, scheduling a 2012 meeting to revisit its parameters, but increased next year's sardine quota by 80 percent. The decision was attributed to a major population surge in 2009.
"We'd rather see them look at more precautionary management, rather than increase the quota," Shester says. "The management system is fundamentally flawed."
Shester believes the coastal economy could suffer if forage fish management isn't intensified.
"This isn't just about whales and birds," he says, citing the region's tourism and fishing industries. "This is about jobs on the West Coast."