by Heather Grant.
It’s easy to overlook the little guys.
In the world of ocean conservation, it’s less challenging to get people’s attention by starting at the top – of the food chain, that is. Large, charismatic and majestic species like sharks and whales inspire awe and sympathy for the plight of these species that seem so powerful, yet are powerless against the impacts of humans. But what about the little guys, down closer to the bottom of the food chain, that sustain life higher up? That feed the sharks, tuna and whales that we are so fascinated with? I’m talking about forage fish – those little fish that form dense, silvery, swirling schools, a banquet for large predators to feed on.
Forage fish are important because they transfer energy from the bottom of the food chain, up towards the top – they eat plankton and are eaten by larger predators, thus they form an important link in the food chain. Typically, this link is composed by only a few precious species. In Atlantic Canada, these include Atlantic herring, mackerel and capelin.
Herring and mackerel are particularly important in the maritime provinces, where they are an important prey species for a variety of whale, shark and tuna species, as well as commercially important species like cod and halibut. They’re also caught in large quantities to be used as bait in important fisheries like the lobster and crab fisheries.
Unfortunately, our little fish species are facing some challenges which could have huge impacts on the entire ecosystem, and it’s time we start paying attention. While a herring might not inspire as much fascination as, say, a giant bluefin tuna, a change in the health of a herring population could have serious effects on the health of bluefin. Atlantic herring have, in fact, experienced significant declines and Canadian government scientists are struggling to get a handle on exactly how much fishing is impacting the population, and what factors could be contributing to or hindering its recovery. Catch limits for herring have been set at very high levels, with science unable to provide advice to fisheries management on what would be a sustainable fishing level. On top of all that, there is a large bait fishery for herring which is largely unmonitored and unregulated, meaning we can’t properly keep track of how much herring is being removed.
Even more shocking is case of Atlantic mackerel. Mackerel has been overfished and is still experiencing overfishing at the hands of Canadian fisheries – the Department of Fisheries and Oceans has itself described the stock as being in a critical state. As with herring, scientists have struggled with knowing exactly what is going on with the population, however they have been able to provide science advice for appropriate catch levels. In the most recent stock assessment, scientists suggested that catches should not exceed 800 tonnes, however the quota was set at 8000, ten times what scientists had recommended. And that doesn’t even include the bait and recreational fishery which, like the herring bait fishery, is unlimited and unmonitored.
Given the important role these species play in the ecosystem, taking anything less than a truly precautionary approach to how we fish them is playing with fire. The effect that a collapse of either mackerel or herring could have on the ecosystem as a whole could be devastating, especially to other fisheries that are already struggling. Science needs to put more effort into figuring out what is going on with our forage species – how are predators affecting the population? The changing climate? How much are we actually catching? And with that, fisheries managers need to start managing these species with the recognition that humans aren’t the only species that needs forage fish, and that if we hope to have a healthy ecosystem and healthy fisheries into the future, we need to look after the important prey species these fisheries rely on.
We at the Ecology Action Centre started a campaign to root for the little guys. We launched a report this month called, “Making Forage Fish Count: Recommendations to Improve Forage Fish Management in Canada.” In it are recommendations on how Canada can do a better job at taking into account the unique characteristics of forage fish and the unique role they play in the ecosystem. Let’s hope that the little guys will get the attention they deserve.
Heather Grant is the Marine Communication Campaigner at the Ecology Action Centre. She loves all fish big and small, and hopes to see the little ones better protected in the near future.