The nature of nature itself is that things are connected. “When one tugs at a single thing in nature, he finds it attached to the rest of the world,” John Muir eloquently wrote, more than 100 years ago. This is easy to observe in the food web, especially looking at ocean animals. At the bottom are microscopic plankton, providing sustenance for the smallest fish, all the way up to enormous whales. As we work to recover salmon in Oregon, it’s worth pausing to consider these connections, which are essential to iconic local species like Chinook.

Salmon are incredible fish that spend years in the ocean, growing fat on a diet of forage fish like anchovy, shad, herring, and sardine, before returning to the river where they hatched to reproduce. Those forage fish are a critical link in the lifeblood of the ocean’s food web—without them, fish like salmon would starve.

That’s why we’re concerned about forage fish, because no matter what we do in places like the Willamette River, salmon and steelhead can’t come back to full strength without a reliable source of ocean prey.

Right now, many forage fish in our ocean waters lack sufficient protections. That’s a problem that goes up the food web too, because forage fish sustain sport fish; anglers need sport fish; and the sport-fishing industry needs anglers. Not to mention the many other iconic species whose diets depend upon forage fish or their predator fish, including Pacific seabirds like the threatened Marbled Murrelet and Tufted Puffin, as well as the powerful and beautiful orca whale.

Southern Resident orcas depend on healthy populations of salmon for sustenance. Credit: Lori Rothstein

There’s plenty of competition for forage fish, which are also harvested for fish oil, fertilizer, aquaculture and livestock feed, cosmetics, pet food—with demand growing for these products. Without protections, forage fish populations are in trouble.

In 2016, the Pacific Fishery Management Council finalized an important amendment which prohibits the development of any new directed forage fisheries until enough science can be gathered regarding potential impacts on other fisheries and communities. Unfortunately, most forage fish species in federal waters don’t enjoy such protections. And even where forage fish are managed under catch limits, those limits do not sufficiently account for the needs of predator species.

The Forage Fish Conservation Act (H.R. 2236) seeks to change the way we approach management of forage fish species. Following the lead of the Pacific Council, it would ensure that a strong understanding of the science and impacts precede development of new forage fish fisheries in any federal waters. It would also require an accounting of predator needs in existing management plans for currently harvested forage fish species.

Common sense reforms like these will help our efforts to recover salmon and steelhead populations. We need this kind of holistic strategy and analysis to sustain the forage fish populations that support anglers and the marine food web alike—and all of the economic engines that rely upon anglers (including guides, bait shops, sporting goods stores, boat and tackle manufacturers). As we get a deeper understanding of forage fish, we see that they’re connected to so much of what we care about, including recovering local salmon. We cannot allow forage fish populations to be pulled under, ripping our way of life and recreation economy away, as one part of nature tugs others.

Published: September 13, 2019