A West Coast Win for Small Fish—and Seabirds, Too

A landmark ruling protects vital fish species from commercial fishing off the U.S. Pacific Coast, and secures the future of seabirds in the process.

Behind every successful seabird-breeding season are thousands of tiny fish. Anchovies, herring, smelt, saury—these are just a few examples of the “forage fish” seabirds depend on to survive and rear healthy chicks. These nutritious schools are a crucial link in the food chain, supporting not just birds but also a wide range of larger fish and marine mammals.

Now a new federal ruling issued by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has recognized the massive ecological impact of these small ocean dwellers, and is protecting them from large-scale fishing off the West Coast. The statute makes dozens of forage fish species—the vast majority of the region’s populations—off limits to commercial fishermen, who are increasingly targeting them to produce mass quantities of fishmeal for agriculture and aquaculture. Under the ruling, fishermen wanting to target any of the protected forage fish species will now be denied approval until they can prove that their impact on the species—and the broader ecosystem—is negligible.

The ban, which affects federal waters beyond three miles off the coast, is a result of nearly four years of advocacy work by several conservation groups, including the National Audubon Society, Pew Trusts, and Oceana—plus the support of multiple commercial and recreational fishing groups, which recognize the importance that forage fish play in boosting other seafood stocks. It went into effect at the beginning of April, and is being implemented by NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Council (NMFC). The restrictions protect seven types of forage fish off of California, Oregon, and Washington. This 280,000-square-mile area is particularly biodiverse and rich in nutrients, thanks in part to the California Current, which runs south from Canada to Baja and causes major upwellings in the Pacific.

More Fish in the Sea (for Birds, Anyway)

The NOAA decision follows on the heels of a 2006 commercial fishing ban on krill in federal waters off the West Coast. The guidelines set a precedent that essentially “forged the path” for the forage-fish ban, says Anna Weinstein, Audubon California’s seabird and marine program director.

The ensuing benefits are huge for forage fish, which are struggling under the combined effects of climate change, ocean acidification, pollution, and overfishing. One major concern is that the exact factors driving sudden population declines—like the infamous Pacific sardine collapse of the 1940s—are often poorly understood. Overfishing, for one, can suddenly tip a population over the edge, with severe ramifications for the species that feed on it.

“Too often we’re responding to species where there’s a risk of them going extinct,” says Ben Enticknap, Oceana’s Pacific campaign manager and senior scientist. That’s what makes this ruling unusual: It proactively covers many forage species at once, and uses an ecosystem-wide conservation approach.

For Audubon, the ban also represents a monumental victory for seabirds. Over the course of the long decision-making process, Audubon California, the Audubon Society of Portland, and Audubon Washington contributed research on the importance of forage fish for birds, and mobilized public support for the regulation. “To me, it showed the power of our network,” says Gail Gatton, executive director of Audubon Washington. “Instead of being a bunch of individuals working on it, we were a connected group.” NOAA reports that it received more than 90,000 comments and letters in support of the ban.

The ruling protects some of the most important prey options for seabirds: round herring, thread herring, Pacific saury, silversides, smelts, Pacific sand lances, and pelagic squid species. Before, these species weren’t even part of any conservation plan. “These seven groups had fallen under the radar,” says Joe Liebezeit, avian conservation manager with the Audubon Society of Portland. But changing that amounts to a massive ecological win. “Combined with the previous measures to protect krill, this new ruling safeguards roughly 70 percent of all forage fish—by weight—in the California Current,” says Oceana’s Enticknap.

Certain climate-threatened species will benefit directly from the new regulations. The Black-footed Albatross, for example, preys on the now-protected neon flying squid, and the Rhinoceros Auklet eats sand lances, which are also covered by the fishing ban. Weinstein reckons that in addition to an estimated 30 local bird species, another 60 to 80 migratory species that flock to the West Coast on a seasonal basis will benefit.

A Boon for Seabirds in the Long Run

Protecting forage fish is like buying life insurance for at-risk seabirds. Species such as Sooty Shearwaters are already threatened by climate change and habitat pressures, which are forcing them to abandon their nests; rampant fishing only adds to their problems. If there’s a low anchovy stock one year, for instance, birds need to be able to fall back on another species, like saury. “You want to preserve diversity and abundance of prey—called the ‘preyscape,’ ” Weinstein explains.

To determine which fish species are most important for seabirds, Audubon California and the Audubon Society of Portland worked with the Farallon Institute, a nonprofit organization that does scientific research on marine ecosystems, to use its Predator-Prey Database to rank individual forage fish species in terms of their dietary importance to seabirds. That science was then used to convince the NMFC to include those fish in its final list of protected species. 

The evidence was a strong selling point for the ban. “The potential benefits to birds were a significant consideration in the background analyses for the action,” says Yvonne deReynier, a senior resource management specialist at NOAA Fisheries.

Liebezeit thinks the next step is to extend the lockdown on forage fishing to the three-mile-wide zone along the California, Oregon, and Washington coastlines. “This would benefit near-shore feeding species, such as the Marbled Murrelet,” he says.

In the meantime, the landmark ruling is being celebrated as a rare case of success in the world of marine conservation. “I’m really excited about this,” Weinstein says, “not just the actual impact on the water, but that a real, practical example has been set for how to get it done. Signed, sealed, delivered—that’s like gold.”

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