West Coast fishery managers this week are considering adding dozens of forage fish species, including smelt, croakers, silversides and shad, to the list of fish protected from harvesting.
According to the Pew Environmental Group, which is backing the proposed measures, protecting forage fish would mark a major shift in the Pacific Fishery Management Council's approach to fishery management. The council currently assesses the health of each species, rather than focusing primarily on the role the species plays in the overall ecosystem.
"Ecosystem-based management says 'let's look in terms of not just the species' value in the net, but the value of keeping the ocean balanced'," says Paul Shively, campaign manager for Pew's Pacific Fish Conservation Program. "We're saying let's put this into place now so we don't fish ourselves into a crisis."
According to Shively, commercial aquaculture - which produces about half of the fish eaten worldwide - has a growing appetite for forage fish, which are used to feed farmed predator species. Advocates for the increased protections believe the industry's habits threaten to deplete the global supply of small fish, depriving seabirds, marine mammals and other fish of a vital component of their diets.
"At some point, you can have peak forage fish, where you've fished to collapse," Shiveley says. "As people are aware of that, they go after obscure forms of bait."
The Pacific Fishery Management Council, now meeting in Costa Mesa, Calif., can decline to take action on the proposal; endorse it without enforcing it; or adopt it as a regulation.
"We're saying let's do it regulatory," Shiveley says. "It's been on the back burner for a number of years."
The council in 2006 voted to prohibit krill fishing, so Shiveley believes there's precedent for an outright ban. He's also heartened by actions of the North Pacific Fishery Management Council, which has granted off-limits status to a number of forage fish in Alaskan waters.
"They're saying we need to leave these in the ocean for halibut and salmon," Shiveley says. "The commercial fishermen say it's the best thing that's ever happened."
Still, Shiveley isn't sure whether the council responsible for Washington, Oregon and California fisheries is yet ready to do the same.
"We're trying to get out of the cycle of doing more studies," he says. "We're seeing movement in the right direction; we just want to make sure it doesn't get bogged down."