What’s the ecological ripple effect of catching little fish in the ocean?
That’s the question the environmental nonprofit Oceana wants fishery managers to ask *before* they set catch limits for West Coast fisheries.
The group has told the Pacific Fishery Management Council – which sets rules for West Coast fisheries – that the small fish at the bottom of the ocean food chain need more safeguards.
But Ben Enticknap, the group’s Pacific project manager, says the requests have been ignored or put on the back burner. That’s why his group is now taking the National Marine Fisheries Service to court.
There are some fisheries that target small forage fish. Fishery managers call them coastal pelagic species.
In the Pacific Northwest, the sardine fishery is a pretty big deal in Astoria and Westport, Wash. Last month, managers approved a new plan to avoid overfishing in the sardine, mackerel, anchovy, and market squid fisheries coastwide.
But Oceana argued in a lawsuit filed yesterday that federal fishery mangers neglected to look at the full impact of catching those small fish stocks – in violation of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act.
“What we’re asking for is a full environmental assessment of the impacts of the fisheries to the ecosystem,” Enticknap said, “and that the management plan be essentially thrown out and redone in a way that complies with the law – including specifying all the ecological factors.”
Looking at the full impact of the sardine fishery means, among other things, accounting for what these little fish eat and what eats them. And the end result could very well be catching fewer sardines so there are more left in the ocean for bigger fish, birds and marine mammals to eat.
Fishery managers say they already have a process that accounts for the environmental impacts of fisheries that target forage fish and leaves plenty of fish in the sea.
Kerry Griffin, who works on fisheries management for the Pacific Fishery Management Council, said the board has taken “a conservative approach” to setting catch limits on small fish such as sardines and mackerel. But under the same law that requires managers to look at ecosystem impacts, they also have to consider the economic needs of coastal communities.
The Council is also developing a plan for ecosystem-based fishery management coastwide. Enticknap says the development process is taking too long, and the Council has decided the plan will offer guidance rather than concrete rules.
“If they don’t set it up right, the managers risk overfishing, depleting these populations and impacting the health of this ecosystem,” he said.
There’s also different economic consideration he’s worried about: The impact of forage fisheries on ocean tourism such as whale viewing, and on other fisheries where the target species – salmon and tuna, perhaps – rely on forage fish for food.
But managers have found accounting for all the ecosystem connections between fish and the marine environment opens up a giant new can of worms … and literally millions of other sea creatures.
“The council has been wrestling with what to do,” said Rod Moore, executive director of the West Coast Seafood Processors Association. I talked to him about this issue just before he replaced on the Council this fall. He said managing an entire ecosystem would require authority fishery managers don’t have and requirements they couldn’t meet.
“You can talk about ecosystem management, but as soon as you start to create any kind of fishery management plan that has actual management requirements in it, then you start having to meet certain aspects of the law, which, given our knowledge of ecosystem functions – not to mention the millions of critters out there – there’s no way to meet,” he said.
“If you truly wanted to manage the ecosystem, you would have to have the ability to manage marine mammal interactions with fisheries. You would have to have the ability to manage non-point source pollution. We don’t have ability to do that.”
Moore said the Council is moving toward a plan that will provide information about ecosystem interactions so managers have a guide to use when setting new rules for fisheries coastwide.
Enticknap said the lawsuit filed yesterday is the first case to challenge the federal requirement for ecosystem considerations.
“This is a really unique lawsuit,” he said. “The law requires managers to look at ecological factors. It’s not just how can we maximize the catch, but how can we do that in a way that protects the ecosystem. They haven’t been doing that in this fishery or in fisheries across the country.”