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Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Conservation Working Group White Paper: Forage Species Science and Management in the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary

A PDF version of this white paper is available here:

121213forage_wp_final.pdf (2.7MB)

Shester G., A. Weinstein, B. Enticknap
(December 2012)

Executive Summary

In this white paper, we examine the role of forage species in the California Current marine ecosystem, the natural and human-caused threats to forage species populations, and the management structures currently in place, with a geographic focus on the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary. In any ecosystem—on land or sea—food availability is a critical factor directly affecting the health and biodiversity of the system. This is especially true for the California Current Large Marine Ecosystem and in particular the key foraging areas in the West Coast National Marine Sanctuaries. Sometimes referred to as the "Blue Serengeti of the Pacific", this wild ocean ecosystem supports a phenomenal diversity of life. It also contributes to the regulation of our climate and supports a major part of the U.S. and world economy.

One pillar to the long-term sustainability of this ocean ecosystem is healthy populations of forage species that provide the food supply for larger animals. Forage species, such as Pacific herring, Pacific sardine, Northern anchovy, market squid, lanternfish, and krill, are critical prey for whales, dolphins, sea lions, many types of fish, and millions of seabirds. The abundance and availability of these small schooling fish and invertebrates are key to a vibrant food web and a healthy ecosystem.

On a global scale, a recent report by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force provided new analysis describing the importance of forage fish and issued a series of management recommendations tailored to the level of information available for each forage species and their role in the ecosystem.

Given the increasing global demand for seafood, and in particular wild-caught fish used as feed for the growing aquaculture industry, proactive actions taken now may avert a future crisis. The first step is to manage forage species differently than other commercial fish species, to account for their unique ecological role. There has been some progress. West Coast states, regional fishery managers, the National Marine Sanctuaries, and the federal government have already prevented directed fisheries for krill off the U.S. West Coast, citing the importance of these species as a keystone prey in the California Current marine ecosystem food web. Many other important forage species, however, remain unmanaged and fisheries could develop at any time and with little warning. While in some respects, management of some forage species on the U.S. west coast is progressive of other parts of the world, new science is now making it possible for management to move toward a more ecosystem-based approach.

There are societal trade-offs among economic sectors inherent in forage species management, as forage species have economic value not only as landed catch, but also if left in the water due to their supportive role of other species that benefit different economic sectors. The goal is to provide a balanced approach taking into account the needs of all sectors, hence providing the greatest overall benefit to the Nation. This requires a paradigm shift in fisheries management away from the traditional singlespecies maximum sustainable yield approach toward a more holistic ecosystem-based approach. However, this requires further tools, data, and frameworks.

As commercial landings of larger fish species have declined off the U.S. West Coast (e.g., tunas, salmon, and rockfish) for various reasons in recent decades, the relative contribution of the smaller forage species to commercial landings and value has increased. Yet the supportive value of forage species to recreational and commercial fisheries, tourism, recreation, wildlife viewing, and healthy ecosystems has not been fully assessed.

This document is intended to provide background on the science and management of West Coast forage species of importance to the MBNMS ecosystem and resources, to help facilitate appropriate engagement between this Sanctuary and state and federal fishery managers.