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We Should Be Eating Fish at the Bottom of the Food Chain

Tiny fish species such as the anchovy have been fished almost to extinction in waters across the world. New West Coast legislation takes action to protect such so-called forage fish—and could eventually be used as a model globally.
Photo via Flickr user pauljill

West Coast waters once teemed with sardines. Many humans love to spoon these tiny, oily fish out of a can and perch them atop a cracker for a tasty snack—as do Pacific Ocean species farther up the food chain, like salmon, halibut, and tuna. Then, in short order, sardine fisheries opened up in Monterey and San Francisco, World Wars I and II drove the need for cheap protein, and most of the little fish found their way into the canneries that soon lined the California coastline. The sardine population collapsed and has never recovered: today, it's at one percent of its historical levels.


West Coast ocean conservation groups don't want to see the sardine's sorry fate befall the Pacific's other bottom-of-the-food-chain fish. For years, organizations like Oceana have been petitioning fishery managers to take action to protect these species, upon whom the bigger fish that humans eat depend for their survival. And on Tuesday, West Coast fisheries took a decisive step towards protecting such species, known as forage fish, when the Pacific Fishery Management Council prohibited development of new commercial fisheries for forage species in all federal ocean waters off the coasts of Washington, Oregon, and California.

The new rule covers species such as herring, smelts, and certain types of squid that are not yet commercially fished, and also puts into place stricter regulations for opening fisheries for those species in the future. Because it can be complicated and often futile to try to save a species like the sardine that's already overfished, Oceana's Pacific campaign manager Ben Enticknap explained, it's much more impactful to take preventative measures to protect the fish.

"This rule is putting the brakes on fishing for these species," he told MUNCHIES. "And if in the future a fishery wants to open, it'll have to demonstrate that it can be sustainable."

Enticknap explained that forage fish around the world are increasingly being ground into fish meal, which is used in aquaculture to feed farm-raised salmon and shrimp.


"But that's a high-volume, low-value use of such fish," he said. Instead, the fish should be left to serve their natural role of feeding the species people like to eat—such as tuna—which are good for fisheries because they command a high price.

"For existing fisheries, the value of forage fish is up to two times higher when they're left in the water," Enticknap said.

We should be eating small fish like sardines and anchovies, not grinding them into fish meal.

Enticknap said Oceana applauds the new rule but remains concerned about forage fish populations elsewhere in the world, which aren't covered by similar protections. He pointed to the demise of the Peruvian anchoveta as a cautionary tale. Once abundant in the waters along the Peruvian coastline, the anchoveta's population has plummeted as Peru has become the world's top exporter of fish meal, thinning the stocks of the hundreds of larger fish species that rely on the anchoveta and that, in turn, humans rely on for food.

Enticknap said he's optimistic that the new West Coast legislation will eventually be copied in global markets.

"It's our hope that what we're doing here can act as a model in regions across the US and in other parts of the world," he said. And in the meantime, Enticknap said, humans should rethink how they eat along the ocean food chain, purchasing fewer big prey species like salmon and tuna and incorporating more sustainably harvested forage species into their diets.

"We should be eating small fish like sardines and anchovies," he said, "not grinding them into fish meal. That way, we could catch way fewer, feed many more people, and have much less of an impact on the marine ecosystem."