Protecting the Atlantic's "Lifeblood"
VIRGINIA BEACH, Va. - Forage fish are considered the lifeblood of the ocean's food web, yet in the Atlantic Ocean off America's Eastern Seaboard they have gone unmanaged, with no regulations on how much can be caught. The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted Monday to change that, setting in motion a proactive plan for protecting more than 50 forage species.
Rick Robins, who owns a seafood processing business in Virginia, is the Council's chair. He said it's an important step for the ecosystem in case of sudden interest in a species not currently targeted by fishermen.
"Right now under the status quo, large-scale fishery for any of these species that we're talking about could develop without any science, without any management plan, without any review by the Council," he said.
The Council's decision covers around 50,000 squares miles of the Atlantic, three miles to 200 miles offshore, from New York, south to the upper-third of North Carolina. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration will make the Council's decision a federal regulation.
Joseph Gordon, the manager of the Mid-Atlantic Ocean Conservation for The Pew Charitable Trusts, said the Council is doing the right thing by taking a big-picture approach to managing what he called the "unsung heroes of the ocean."
"They provide food for whales, dolphins, seals, seabirds, sharks, billfish," he said. "Billions in predators including ourselves."
This is the first regulation to address forage fish that haven't been targeted yet in the U.S. Atlantic. Limits were set in U.S. Pacific waters last year and the Mid-Atlantic Council has used similar methodology to place a 1,700-pound limit on the amount of forage fish that could be caught by fishermen on any given trip.
Peter deFur, an environmental biologist from Richmond and a member of the Council, said krill is a good example of a species near the bottom of the food chain that could benefit from the proactive protection.
"We want to make sure that the krill that might be in our waters are not being harvested to make fish oil as food supplements because then all the other species that depend on krill are gone."
The council passed the forage fish regulations 18 to one, with one abstention.