Forage fish are small fish that play a big role in ocean food webs. Forage fish include species like herring, anchovies, menhaden, sardines, and squid.
(above photo: Pelicans on pilings. © Carl Safina)
These fish mostly feed on plankton all their life and are rich in energy. They supply calories and nourishment (food!) for many large, predatory fish, including cod, striped bass, tuna, and salmon, as well as for hundreds of species of seabirds, sharks, seals, dolphins, and whales. Maintaining an abundance and diversity of forage fish in the ocean is therefore critically important to the health of larger fish and wildlife.
Fisheries for Forage Fish
Currently forage fish make up over a third of the wild marine catch. A whopping 90% of this catch is processed into feeds for fish farms, poultry, and livestock (If you’re eating farmed animals, you’re eating wild ocean fish!), as well as nutritional supplements for people.
Many scientists are concerned that we are removing too many forage fish from the ocean. Forage fish are vulnerable to overfishing because they form large schools, making them extremely easy to catch. A large trawl net can scoop up hundreds of thousands of these fish at once! Another issue is that their populations experience large natural fluctuations in abundance, making them susceptible to collapse. Scientists are now recommending that we cut forage fish catch in half in many regions to ensure the maintenance of ocean ecosystems.
Forage fish are worth more in the water. Scientists estimate that forage fish contribute over $11 billion by serving as food for other wild fish that people later catch and eat. That’s about double the $6 billion they generate as direct catch. Additionally, leaving more forage fish in the water helps ensure we have abundant populations of seabirds, dolphins and whales—animals that support eco-tourism businesses.
Protecting Forage Fish
The good news is that in some places, like the U.S., we are finally starting to pay attention to the little fish in the sea. U.S. fisheries management agencies are starting to take a big-picture ecosystem-based approach to fisheries management and are working to ensure that we leave enough forage fish in the ocean to feed their vast array of predators!
What You Can Do
Join The Safina Center in supporting efforts to protect the sea’s little fish! And make sure to choose seafood, whether wild-caught or farmed, that does not contribute to the depletion of forage fish. For sustainable wild-caught options, check out our Healthy Oceans Seafood Guide. For sustainable farmed options, check out the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch Guide.