Florida Forage Fish Campaign to Hold the Marine Webs Together

Like everything in the Animal Kingdom, it's all connected — this campaign wants to keep it that way.

Like everything in the Animal Kingdom, it's all connected. It can be like playing the game of Jenga, take out one piece and the tower could crumble. Forage fish is one of the bigger pieces in the game.

"Forage fish management has become an increasingly discussed topic around the country for the last decade," says the IGFA director of conservation Jason Schratwieser. "Some really interesting new science on forage fish was published by the Lenfest Ocean campaign in 2012. In November 2014, IGFA convened a meeting at its headquarters, where staff from FWC (Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission), members of the recreational fishing community, experts from Florida academic institutions and representatives from environmental NGOs met to talk about forage fish in Florida."

Roll in the Florida Forage Fish Campaign — a coalition campaign led by the IGFA with Guy Harvey Ocean Foundation, Florida Wildlife Federation and The Pew Charitable Trusts. The campaign is also seeing support from recreational angling groups such as the Snook and Gamefish Foundation, CCA Florida, recreational anglers, charter captains, fishing-related businesses, commercial fishermen and academics.

The campaign's goal to conserve forage fish, like pinfish, anchovies, menhaden and scad, presents truly a "circle of life" notion that could be dire in Florida's waters without the right actions.

"They feed on microscopic plants and animals, in turn, they serve as a major food source for snook, tarpon, redfish and others," Schratwieser says. "Although the FWC has a good track record on this, in recent years, forage fish have made up nearly 20 percent of the commercial catch in Florida’s coastal waters."

The demand for forage fish is surging, Schratwieser says, and used in animal feed, cosmetics, and fertilizer. In parts of Europe and Asia, their eggs are considered a delicacy. The campaign is trying to place a bigger stake for the saltwater fish that need forage fish for their survival.

"We want to work with the FWC to make sure that forage fisheries are managed, so that the food needs of Florida’s larger saltwater fish are taken into consideration during stock assessments for the species that eat them, and when setting fishing rules for forage fish," he says. "We’re also urging the FWC to ensure scientific data about forage species to guide the expansion of existing forage fishing operations and development of new industries that target these species."

With any new endeavor surrounding change, it takes education. The campaign wants to enlighten stakeholders, such as recreational and commercial fishing communities, about the new science on forage fish's importance in the marine ecosystem.

"We are also working directly with senior staff at FWC and commissioners to find constructive ways of improving data collection and incorporating forage fish more into future stock assessments," he says. "I think we’re lucky to be tackling this subject in Florida because FWC has an excellent track record managing fisheries, particularly on the recreational side."

The campaign wants to get in front of this issue, Schratwieser says, taking a proactive approach with new, worldwide markets emerging for forage fish is about maintaining Florida's legacy as the Fishing Capital of the World.

"We want to get ahead of the curve," he says. "There are some considerable data gaps that limit our understanding of forage fish abundance and health in Florida."

To educate the public, the campaign developed an interactive website, that will encourage visitors to learn more about forage fish and also to take the Forage Fish Pledge.

If successful, Schratwieser says, Florida will improve incorporating forage fish data into predator fish stock assessments and develop some guidance on how to sustainably manage any new fisheries for forage fish.

"We’re looking at this as a model that we can potentially export to other states, and even other countries," he says. "Forage fish importance is not unique to Florida, but is a global issue. Over one-third of global fisheries landings are for forage fish. People are becoming more aware of their importance and we are seeing new management measures put into place that reflect this in areas like the west coast and, most recently, the Mid Atlantic Fisheries Management Council (MAFMC). In late 2014, the MAFMC initiated an action that protects unmanaged species of forage fish in the Mid-Atlantic. This would place restrictions on the development or expansion of targeted fisheries for these fish. This is an opportunity for the FWC to build on their tradition of leadership on marine fisheries by protecting the baitfish that fuel Florida’s multi-million dollar fishing industry. "

The campaign is hopeful for forage fish to be on the agenda of the June 2015 FWC meeting.

"That will be a great opportunity to educate commissioners about what forage fish are, their importance in marine ecosystems, how they are currently being managed and what we can do to improve data collection and better account for their role as food or larger fish," he says. "The coalition will be providing public comment on this and we’re looking to have large turnout from recreational anglers as well."

Michael Patrick O'Neill