Little Fish Are a Big Deal

Over the last 100 years the industrial fishing fleet has become very good at strip-mining the ocean of forage fish

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When you ask a 4-year-old, “What do big fish eat?,” the answer comes easily, “Little fish!”

A new report by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force entitled Little Fish, Big Impact confirms the wisdom of the 4-year-old — big fish do eat little fish.

Why is this finding significant?

Little fish (forage fish) play an essential role in the marine food web.

It works like this: plankton absorb the sun’s energy, then species like sardines, anchovies, menhaden and herring eat the plankton. Later, whales, seabirds and larger fish such as salmon, cod and striped bass come along and eat the forage fish, transforming the energy produced by plankton into the bodies of those larger creatures.

The problem is that over the last 100 years the industrial fishing fleet has become very good at strip-mining the ocean of forage fish. Today, only a small percentage of forage fish end up in cans for human consumption. Most are ground up into meal for fish farms and chicken farms, used as bait for other fisheries, or turned into nutritional supplements like fish oil.

Populations of forage fish can vary dramatically depending on ocean conditions. But one thing is certain: overfished forage fish can be wiped out, and the species that depend on them can go hungry.

According to the report:

Fishing has caused or exacerbated the collapse of several forage fish populations during the past century, and some collapsed populations have not recovered. Although forage fish can generally withstand greater fishing pressure compared with slower-growing species, they are just as vulnerable to collapse when fished beyond sustainable levels.

The good news is that when harvests are reduced, forage fish species can rebound to healthy and sustainable populations. This protects the entire ocean food web.

Earthjustice lawyers are currently working on both the East and West coasts to protect forage fish species. Fighting for the long-term health of ecosystems is what we do, and this new study highlighting the importance and value of small fish is certainly welcome and helps make the case for protecting the ocean.

Learn more about Earthjustice’s oceans work.

An Earthjustice staff member from 1999 until 2015, Brian used outreach and partnership skills to cover many issues, including advocacy campaign efforts to promote a healthy ocean.

Earthjustice’s Oceans Program uses the power of the law to safeguard imperiled marine life, reform fisheries management, stop the expansion of offshore oil and gas drilling, and increase the resiliency of ocean ecosystems to climate change.