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West Coast Forage Fish Protections Mean Big Things for Seabirds

After more than three years of hard work, Audubon Society of Portland and our partners, including Pew Charitable Trusts, Audubon California, Oceana, and Audubon Washington, have secured a huge win for forage fish species. As of May 4, 2016, dozens of forage fish species will gain federal protection under a new rule from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA).

West Coast Forage Fish Protections Mean Big Things for Seabirds

Photo by Ron LeValley

After more than three years of hard work, Audubon Society of Portland and our partners, including Pew Charitable Trusts, Audubon California, Oceana, and Audubon Washington, have secured a huge win for forage fish species. As of May 4, 2016, dozens of forage fish species will gain federal protection under a new rule from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA). 

The rule bans fishing on species like Pacific Sandlance, several types of smelt, herring, and squid. The new rule also limits allowable bycatch of these species in existing fisheries. These forage fish had slipped through the cracks of existing fishery management plans and were left unprotected in federal waters (3-200 miles off the coast). Seabirds that frequent federal waters off of Oregon, such as the Sooty Shearwater and species of conservation concern including the Black-footed Albatross and Pink-footed Shearwater, depend on these species for survival.  

“Seabirds are experiencing some of the most precipitous population declines of any bird group around the globe and a growing body of research indicates that reduced forage fish populations are a major factor in seabird declines,” explained Joe Liebezeit, Portland Audubon’s Avian Conservation Program Manager and Staff Scientist. “These new protections are particularly important as interest in fishmeal and fish oil products has threatened to open up commercial fisheries on these species”. 

This shift in fisheries management from a single-species approach to ecosystem-based management is great news for the health of marine life. Forage fish occupy a critical place in the marine food web. They play a fundamental role in marine ecosystems by converting energy from lower trophic levels (i.e. plankton and other small animals) into food for larger fish, marine mammals, and seabirds. Effective management and protection of our marine resources can only be done by taking the entire food web into account.  

“It is a breath of fresh air to see the Council endorse this precautionary approach to fisheries management — good for seabirds, tuna, halibut and marine mammals,” said Paul Engelmeyer, Manager of Audubon’s Ten Mile Creek Sanctuary. 

A second important piece of the new rule is the acceptance of a precautionary approach to management which reflects the principle that responsible management requires asking questions before a fishery opens rather than after. In the case here, fishery management plan amendments associated with the new rule ensures that no commercial fisheries can begin until and unless the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) has adequate scientific information to consider impacts on the species considered as well as to existing fisheries, fishing communities, and the greater marine ecosystem.

With the big win here and federal forage fish protections secured on the west coast, Portland Audubon now turns its attention to protecting forage fish in state waters (0-3 miles from shore). Unlike California and Washington, Oregon currently has no forage fish policy on the books. ODFW expects to have a draft forage fish plan for public review in 2016 and Portland Audubon will work to ensure this plan is effective and helps to protect seabirds that depend on these small, but important fish. Visit our website for more background and updates on this issue. 

Portland Audubon thanks the PFMC and NOAA for their steadfast work in addressing concerns about these species into the new rules and regulations. Members of Oregon Audubon chapters were instrumental in this fight by providing compelling comments to the Council to help make forage fish protections a reality. Stay tuned for opportunities for public comment on the draft state forage fish management plan in the coming months.

Common Murre with Forage Fish
Common Murre by Ron LaValley
 
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