STONY BROOK (US)—As a stunningly rapid depletion of ocean forage fish threatens the viability of the global food chain, an international team of marine scientists has joined forces to tackle the crisis.
The Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University has launched the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, a team of 13 scientists from around the world that will develop management plans to reverse depletion of forage fish from the oceans. These small prey fish are a critical food source for marine mammals, seabirds, and many large fish species, and their disappearance could undermine or even collapse marine food webs.
“The overexploitation of forage fish has played out like the Wild West of the oceans, with minimal rules and a take-what-you-can mindset,” says Ellen K. Pikitch, executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science and chairwoman of the taskforce. “What’s been overlooked for far too long is that forage fish are key players in the ocean’s complex food web. Their excessive removal from the oceans threatens to cause a breakdown of a very complex ecosystem in which species are interconnected.”
The taskforce is the first scientific team to comprehensively address the management of forage fish globally. Supported by the Lenfest Ocean Program, the taskforce will examine the roles of forage fish within food webs over the next two years, and develop science-based “rules of thumb” and other management recommendations intended to prevent fishing-induced irreversible impacts on marine ecosystems.
Forage fish include so-called “bait fish” such as anchovies, herring, sardines, and menhaden, as well as squid and krill. They are being increasingly harvested by industrial scale fisheries, and comprise nearly 40 percent of the wild marine fish catch globally. To date, management of these fisheries has been sparse and has generally not taken into account the needs of dependant oceanic predators. The taskforce will recommend specific fishery management measures that will maintain the ecological integrity of marine ecosystems in an era of increased fishing pressure.
Of the 31.5 million tons of forage fish taken from the world’s oceans each year, 90 percent is reduced into fish meal and oil for livestock and aquaculture feeds, according to a recent study coauthored by taskforce member Daniel Pauly of the University of British Columbia in Vancouver.
“The Lenfest Task Force will provide the scientific foundation for managing forage fisheries in a more sustainable way,” says Charlotte Hudson, director of the Lenfest Ocean Program. “It will be critically important to implement the experts’ recommendations to ensure the long-term health of our oceans.”
The taskforce will develop specific guidelines for managing forage fish using an ecosystem-based approach, which incorporates food web dynamics and environmental factors, and breaks from traditional species-by-species management. Plans are for these recommendations to be delivered by 2011 to policymakers, managers, and fishery council members.
Taskforce member Dee Boersma of the University of Washington, an expert on penguins, says the repercussions of myopic fisheries management extend much more broadly than one might assume. “Penguins are not the target of fishing operations, but they clearly are suffering the consequences,” Boersma explains. “These flightless birds spend half their lives underwater, feeding mostly on krill, squid, and small fish. Their survival is directly threatened by excessive forage fishing, and our work will help to ensure that smart management is adopted to safeguard these and other treasured species.”
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