Fishing boats line the dock along Timms Way in San Pedro. West Coast fishery managers banned the take of any forage fish (pelagic squid, herring), in a decision ratified by federal officials with a final rule issued this week, in state waters. The species aren’t fished currently, and this is a move to protect them, in the event their numbers increase and become enough to sustain a productive fishery. (Chuck Bennett / Staff Photographer)
No one’s fishing in large numbers for lanternfish, bristlemouth, pelagic squid or a handful of other forage-fish species targeted for protection in California by federal regulators this week.
And no one will be fishing for them anytime soon, under the new rule, which has been the subject of debate among fishers and environmentalists for more than five years. It aims to proactively protect the Pacific Ocean ecosystem by banning commercial fishing of round and thread herring, Pacific saury and sand lance, and certain smelts across the West Coast that are preferred meals of predators commonly fished here.
“The fishery management council wasn’t interested in being surprised by a potential new fishery,” said Yvonne deReynier, a NOAA spokeswoman. “Because of this rule, now people can’t just decide they want to go fishing without checking in and getting permission from fishery management. This is a big-picture concern of our council. The council wants to ensure there are going to be enough prey for mid- and higher-level trophic species that feed on these.”
Before the rule was finalized Monday, new forage-fish commercial fisheries could start relatively easily. Now they can’t begin without extensive study, regulation and permission by the Pacific Fishery Management Council to ensure they’re not overfished or otherwise harmed.
Environmentalists cheered the decision, saying it’s a progressive shift in policy from more conservative, past actions of the Pacific Fishery Management Council and NOAA’s National Marine Fisheries Service.
“The way we’ve traditionally managed fisheries in U.S. waters is really a management-by-crisis. This turns that on its head,” said Paul Shively, a spokesman for The Pew Charitable Trusts, an organization that has advocated for the rule since 2010. “It’s really a forward-thinking rule they put in place. It will be interesting and exciting to see how this is used as a model for other fisheries in the nation.”
For California anglers, however, the decision makes little sense.
“Our concern is that this is very shortsighted,” said Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association. “It’s basically a placeholder to stop a fishery before it starts. For the most part, there shouldn’t be any immediate impact to any fishery because it allows for incidental takes when fishers are looking for something else but come up with these species.”
Pleschner-Steele said constantly shifting ocean conditions require quick adaptation by fishers to survive and provide the market with fresh, sustainable fish. This measure could cause unnecessary delays and costs to fishers who are already struggling with what they perceive as overly restrictive federal and state rules.
“In light of climate change and ocean acidification, the indications are that it’s going to be pushing temperate fish north. So the fish that now reside in Mexico and South America could very well become abundant here,” Pleschner-Steele said. “We asked that this policy be reviewed in the next couple of years to see if there are impacts, and then to keep reviewing it because the ocean’s always changing.”
Sardines and anchovies, which also are forage fish, aren’t included in this rule because there are existing management plans for them. While the rule applies only to federal waters at least 3 miles out from the coast, state fishery regulators are likely to follow suit, officials said.
This decision is the second of its kind on the West Coast. In 2009, commercial fishing for krill — a red shrimp-like crustacean favored by many ocean species — was banned even though krill fishers didn’t exist. Both issues were brought to the forefront by environmental organizations worried about overfishing, and maintaining a supply of prey species for ocean predators, sea birds and marine mammals.
“We started with krill in 2009, and then moved to larger species,” deReynier said. “The fishery management council began working on this in 2013, the first time they looked at fisheries across the entire ecosystem, but environmental groups were calling for it for years before that.”
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