Little Fish Make Big Fish - Managing Forage Species

Date 02/27/2014

By Preston Robertson, FWF Vice-President for Conservation & General Counsel

Forage fish are those little fish that swim in schools in our saltwaters. They inhabit the marine food chain between macro-invertebrates such as plankton and the more readily seen species anglers love to catch, such as sea trout, redfish and snook. Some examples of forage fish are herrings, menhaden, sardines and anchovies. Forage fish, historically existing in great abundance, consume microscopic organisms and are in turn eaten by larger marine predators. As with all ecosystems, our seas and coastal waters need to have all parts of the food chain intact to thrive and be sustainable.

While more charismatic species such as our game fish are readily identifiable and have human advocates looking out for their benefit, forage species have been somewhat ignored. This should not be the case. Forage fish play a fundamental role in our marine ecosystems by converting energy from lower life forms into food for larger fish, sea mammals and sea birds. They also act as filter feeders to diminish algal blooms.

Sought after commercially, forage species are ground up or “reduced” into fish meal or oil and utilized as a protein source for livestock, pet food and aquaculture. Forage fish are also caught for use as bait for anglers.

In recent years, as human populations have grown, the extraction of forage fish from our oceans has increased. Forage fish now comprise approximately 37% of the global wild saltwater fish catch. Without this critical part of the marine food web, other parts will suffer and face declining populations to the detriment of both recreational and commercial anglers and ocean ecology.

As a key economic and ecological group of organisms, forage fish need to be managed in a sustainable way. Management needs to consider not only human consumption and commercial use, but the ecological requirements of the marine ecosystem. Proper and long-term management will ensure there will always be little fish to feed our game species and adequate stocks for commercial take. It will also ensure that our marine heritage survives intact.

Schooling sardines. Photo Credit: © Erwin Poliakoff, Flickr.

Tags: Forage fish, Bait Fish, Overfishing, Gulf of Mexico,

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