Forage fish. That’s what scientists call the menhaden, sardines, anchovies, herring and others that larger fish, marine mammals, and seabirds eat. Worldwide, they contribute some $17 billion directly and indirectly as commercial catch.
According to a 2012 report by the Lenfest scientific task force, these minnows and bait fish constitute one-third of the world’s marine fish catch. And some of these forage fish populations have collapsed under such intense fishing pressure.
Nothing like that has happened in Florida — yet. But a coalition of angling and research groups wants to make sure it doesn’t.
The International Game Fish Association — partnered with the Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, Pew Environment Group, and the Florida Wildlife Federation — is mounting a campaign to put forage fish on the radar of Sunshine State anglers and fisheries managers (http://floridaforagefish.igfa.org).
“They don’t have the rigorous management that other fish do,” IGFA conservation director Jason Schratwieser said. “We’re trying to be proactive. We want to get a grassroots swell and work with key people.”
The coalition proposes to bring up the issue at the June meeting of the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission. Although Schratwieser says it’s impossible for the commission to conduct a stock assessment of every bait-fish species found in Florida, it should take a precautionary approach to new commercial fisheries that might emerge.
As an example, “not allowing the floodgates to open if someone comes over and decides that Atlantic silversides will make you live to 152,” Schratwieser said.
The conservationist complimented the agency’s management of important bait species such as mullet, and its decision last year to limit the harvest of sea cucumbers amid a burgeoning Asian market for the bottom-dwellers. Schratwieser said he would like to see a management strategy for forage fish populations that would become a template for other states.
“We need to go from single-species fisheries management to more of an ecosystem-based fishery management,” he said.
Elsewhere in the world, forage fish are harvested mostly to turn into poultry feed, fish food and cosmetics. Very little is actually eaten by people, according to the Lenfest task force. These fish are small and form huge schools, making them easy to catch. The scientists recommend cutting the catch rates in half in many ecosystems and leaving twice as many forage fish in the water to be consumed by natural predators.
In Florida, economically important sport-fish species such as snook, tarpon, sailfish and tuna depend on healthy populations of bait species such as mullet, threadfin herring, pilchards and goggle-eyes (big-eye scad). So conserving game-fish food becomes as important as conserving game fish, Schratwieser said.
“At the end of the day, you can put all the slot limits, bag limits and seasonal closures you want,” he said. “But if [game fish] don’t get enough to eat, there aren’t going to be many of them.”