By Shelby Sebens
VANCOUVER, Wash. (Reuters) - A U.S. government agency that manages West Coast fisheries approved a prohibition on Tuesday on fishing seven categories of forage fish in a groundbreaking decision that signals a shift toward an ecosystem-based management.
A range of ocean wildlife from whales and sea lions to commercially critical salmon and threatened seabirds depend for survival on tiny so-called forage fish that serve as a food source.
“This forage base is critical both for ecosystem function and for protecting the fisheries that we manage,” said Pacific Fishery Management Council councilwoman Caren Braby, who moved to approve the restriction.
The council, meeting in Vancouver, Washington, voted unanimously to protect forage fish including round and thread herring, lanternfish, sand lance, saury, silverside, smelt, and several types of squid.
The ban by the council, which has jurisdiction off the Pacific coastlines of Washington state, Oregon and California, does not affect any existing fisheries or incidental catches.
With an increasing global need for fish and livestock feed, proponents of the ban feared these unmanaged forage fish could be targeted for commercial fishing as they are in other regions.
Forage fish account for over a third of all marine fish harvested and brought to land by fishermen globally, with 90 percent turned into fishmeal or oil, according to the Pew Charitable Trusts on the U.S. West Coast.
Conservationists said the decision, which drew broad support from environmentalists and sport and commercial fishermen alike, builds on a 2006 vote to ban krill fishing.
“It’s got more buy-in than any other fish conservation issue I’ve ever worked on,” said Bob Rees, executive director of the Association of Northwest Steelheaders. “Everything feeds off these fish. They’re an integral component of every life cycle we pursue.”
Conservationists applauded the council, which includes members of state and federal wildlife agencies as well as private citizens with conservation or commercial fishing knowledge, for taking a proactive approach to managing forage fish before they are targeted for commercial fishing.
“It’s the first step at looking at having an eco-based approach to manage fisheries,” said Paul Shively, who directs ocean conservation efforts for The Pew Charitable Trusts on the West Coast.
The rule still must go before the National Marine Fisheries Service and could take several months before it is enacted.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Eric Walsh)