Fishing and seafood supply depend on the smallest fish in the food web

In an area as vast as the oceans of our planet, tiny organisms like baitfish, some of which are less than an inch in length, may seem insignificant. However, these small fish are a critical thread in the complex food web of the sea.

Larger fish, marine mammals and seabirds all depend on a healthy population of sardines, anchovies, herring, krill and shad to sustain life for their future generations. Without these baitfish, the abundance of fishing targets for recreational fishermen, the seafood supply provided by commercial fishermen, the existence of endangered whales and all the balance of life at sea. would likely be compromised.

Now more than ever, fisheries managers need to think about how they manage the smallest fish in the sea. A bipartisan bill introduced in Congress last week – the Forage Fish Conservation Act of 2021 – seeks to demand fisheries managers to examine the impacts of decisions on smaller fish in US federal waters.

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Menhaden baited with a dip net.

Why is an Act of Congress necessary to conserve fish?

The Forage Fish Conservation Act was introduced by Representatives Debbie Dingell, D-Ann Arbor and Brian Mast, R-Stuart. This could be one of the few times in recent U.S. history where two lawmakers have actually gone across the aisle. It builds on the spirit of the initial effort to establish protection for our national fishery resources.

One of the most formative laws in the history of the management of our fish stocks in the United States was developed and passed in 1976. The Magnuson-Stevens Act, officially called the Fishery Conservation and Management Act, was named in honor of the two main legislators. who organized the effort – Senators Warren Magnuson, D-Washington and Ted Stevens, R-Alaska. The act establishes:

  • An exclusive economic zone (EEZ) or federal waters limit 200 miles from the US coast
  • Eight regional management councils
  • Ten national standards to promote healthy fishing

These measures were necessary because foreign fishing fleets used the fish stocks that lived near the American coasts. In its first version, the legislation protected the stocks of domestic commercial fishermen. Then it became clear that fish stocks needed to be managed in US waters to guard against overfishing by our own fleets.

Omega Protein Boats from Reedville, Va. Harvest menhaden in federal waters off the Jersey coast on September 6.

What has changed over the years?

There have been two large-scale reauthorizations and one amendment to the Magnuson-Stevens Act since it was passed in 1996 and again in 2007. According to NOAA Fisheries, the following:

Sustainable Fisheries Act 1996

  • Strengthened requirements to prevent overfishing and restore overfished fisheries.
  • Establish standards for fisheries management plans to specify objective and measurable criteria for determining stock status.
  • Added three new national standards to address fishing vessel safety, fishing communities and bycatch.
  • Introduction of fish habitat as a key component of fisheries management.

MSA Reauthorization Act, 2007

  • Establishment of annual catch limits and accountability measures.
  • Promotion of market-based management strategies, including limited access privilege programs, such as catch shares.
  • Strengthening the role of science through peer review, scientific and statistical committees and the Marine Recreation Information Program.
  • Strengthening international cooperation by combating illegal, unregulated and unreported fishing and bycatch.

Modern Fish Act, 2018

  • Improves recreational fishing data
  • Manages mixed-use fisheries
  • Requires reports and advice for fisheries management and science

MSA helps end overfishing and rebuild stocks. It leads to strengthening the value of fishing for our economy and our marine ecosystems.

Few things make a fisherman feel as good as a fishpond full of spun herring (also called greenies).  (ED KILLER / TRESURE COAST JOURNAL)

How will the Forage Fish Act help?

This act requires fisheries managers in federal waters to consider the role that forage fish play in the marine ecosystem. In some cases, like menhaden and some types of sardines, the small fish are gathered in huge fillets and sold in bulk to processors of everything from vitamin supplements to cat food. The bill elevates the status of these small fish to a higher level of importance.

“This legislation, which sets a framework to ensure that forage fish are not overfished, is essential for all anglers and businesses that depend on healthy marine resources,” said Mike Leonard, vice president of government affairs. from the American Sportfishing Association.

The bill means these fish mean more to those who fish cod off the coasts of Massachusetts and Maine, stripers off Virginia and New Jersey, mackerel off South Carolina and South Carolina. Florida, cobia off Mississippi and Texas, tuna off California, salmon off Washington, and halibut off Alaska.

It will allow better management of small crustaceans and very small fish, followed by right whales, humpback whales and gray whales. Coastal seabirds like northern gannets, petrels, gulls and terns also depend on it. Oceanic dolphin species and sharks also need these fish for food.

Alewives for the future

I am encouraged to see legislation like this. It means our leaders are listening to us.

For years fishermen have talked about the problems they see and encounter when they are on the water. Often there is a disconnect with fisheries managers who tend to dismiss anecdotal accounts.

I am all in favor of science-based decisions when it comes to fisheries management decisions, but I have a feeling that in some cases research does not always match eyes on the water. This is the case with the red snapper in the waters of the South Atlantic.

Without forage fish, the fish that recreational fishermen like to pursue, and the one that commercial fishermen catch for our markets, cannot thrive. In Florida waters, mahi mahi, tarpon, mackerel, cobia, sailfish, tuna, bluefish, sharks, and whales all follow the seasonal southward migrations of baitfish in the fall. and the north in the spring.

Nice job (a compliment that charter boat captains pay each other) to the lawmakers who sponsored this bill. Now let’s get it through.

Ed Killer is the outside writer for TCPalm. Sign up for his newsletters and other weeklies at Friend Ed on Facebook to Ed Killer, follow him on Twitter @tcpalmekiller or send him an e-mail at[email protected].