The Good and the Not So Good for the Sea’s Little Fish

In recent years, conservation groups, like the Herring Alliance, a coalition of environmental groups [which includes Blue Ocean Institute], have been fighting to get protections for the little fish in the sea – the menhadens, herrings, and anchovies.

Why? Because these little fish play a BIG role. Often called ‘forage fish,’ they provide food for larger fish, birds, and marine mammals. This makes them critically important to the maintenance of healthy ocean ecosystems. Yet, fisheries managers have let catches of forage fish go unregulated. And partially because of this, some forage fish species have been declining [pollution and habitat destruction have also contributed in some cases], leaving the stability of ocean ecosystems at risk.

The Herring Alliance and others are trying to change this. And over the last year, they have achieved some big wins for forage fish management in the U.S. Atlantic.

Alewife and Blueback Herring are collectively called ‘River Herring’. Credit: NOAA

Last December, the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission established the first ever catch limit for the Atlantic menhaden fishery. They also agreed to develop new abundance conservation goals for menhaden that consider the ecosystem services they provide.

And in June, the same fisheries managers took another stand for forage fish- establishing much needed protections for river herring and shad, species at very low abundances. They established a limit on how much of these species industrial mackerel trawlers can catch. For years, the mackerel fishermen have caught river herring and shad in their trawls, hampering conservation efforts. Now if the fishery reaches its allotted amount of shad/river herring catch, it will have to close.

Another victory for forage fish was supposed to come this month. The Herring Alliance, along with Northeast fisheries managers and fishermen, had developed a plan to improve monitoring in the Northeast herring fishery, which catches large quantities of Atlantic herring and also river herring as bycatch. The plan called for 100% on-board scientific observer coverage for Atlantic herring fishing vessels, to ensure the accurate recording of catches and discards (fish thrown back to sea) – something that is needed to help managers properly regulate the fishery.

Atlantic Herring. Credit: NOAA

But, just when things were looking up for the little fish in the U.S. Atlantic – The National Marine Fisheries Service disapproved the monitoring plan for the Northeast herring Fishery.

The decision was a setback for forage fish management, ocean ecosystems, and New England fisheries [which are already struggling]. Both fishermen and conservationists are concerned that the herring fishery is not leaving enough little fish in the sea to attract and feed lager, commercially valuable fish in the region [like cod, tuna, and striped bass]. And they are also concerned that the fishery is contributing to the demise of river herring – a species that managers are currently considering for listing under the Endangered Species Act.

Managers with the National Marine Fisheries Service say they disapproved the plan because of a lack of money to pay for the on-board scientific observers. But they say they will continue to work on finding a way to pay for the observer program. Hopefully they do. Because while the cost of the observer program may be high, the cost of not protecting these critically important forage fish is likely much greater!

To learn more about the sea’s little fish and how you can help protect them, please visit Blue Ocean Institute’s forage fish page and the Herring Alliance website.


Elizabeth Brown is a research scientist at Blue Ocean Institute.


Leave a Reply