Forage Fish: Small Fish, Big Impact

Don’t forget the little guys.

underwater baitball

underwater baitball

The presence of bait — formally known as forage fish — is often an integral factor for a successful day of big-game fishing. Photo by Doug PerrineDoug Perrine

The captain bellowed, “Just marked a nice one!” from the tower as everyone in the cockpit went on high alert. A giant red ball of bait occupied almost the entire screen of the sounder, and seconds later, a blue marlin appeared beneath a pressure wave, chewing the mackerel off the chase bait of the daisy chain. As soon as the pitch bait slid back into the spread, the blue piled on and started peeling line off the 50-wide, greyhounding into the distance.

Scenarios like this take place around the world every day, and it’s no secret that whether you’re fishing for sailfish in Isla Mujeres or blue marlin in the mid-Atlanic, the presence of bait — formally known as forage fish — is often an integral factor for a successful day of big-game fishing. As anglers, we think about it more than we probably realize, and it’s not rocket science. Pulling teasers, lures, and ballyhoo in the spread at their simplest definition mimic forage fish fleeing for their lives, and ultimately they are the trigger driving the desire of a game fish to join the feeding frenzy. Heck, the anticipation of the big bite or a great day of gaffer dolphin fishing is why we fish.

Unfortunately, this excitement is not shared when it comes to management of these important forage fish species. Many people view forage fish as a limitless resource that will always be there year after year. Yet recent studies tell us that our preconceived notions are wrong and stocks cannot continue to be pressured in the same ways they are today without sacrificing the health of the fish dependent upon them.

Globally, forage fish are harvested to support high-demand reduction fisheries to produce animal feed and fish oil, which in turn is used to manufacture vitamins and cosmetics. Until recently, commercial operations have been able to harvest as much as they want, but managers at the local, federal and -international levels are beginning to understand the importance of these fisheries — not for their direct value, but more so for their indirect value to the health of the rest of the ecosystem, specifically the fish dependent upon them for food. Small strides are being made to curtail the destructive nature of these valuable fisheries, but more needs to be done and the recreational fishing community must take note.

Sardines, menhaden, anchovies and other forage fish might be small in size, but they directly generate a commercial value of approximately $5.6 billion annually in the reduction fishery. If you consider a hypothetical situation where those forage fish were instead left in the water to support commercially important species such as tuna, salmon or other sought-after table fare, they would instead generate $11.3 billion. When it comes to dollars and cents generated for the commercial fishery, the return on forage fish is far more valuable as prey for larger predators.

However, what these values do not represent — and what is most important to us — is the value added to recreational fishing from healthy forage fish populations. If we step back and look at saltwater recreational fishing as a whole, including inshore and offshore fisheries, the effects of forage fish management become apparent. In big-game fishing, it might not necessarily be the grander blue marlin that is feeding on small baitfish, but rather what they prey upon. If you cut open the stomach of a mahimahi, you will almost always find small baitfish they fed on and thus see the indirect impact on large game fish. In South Florida, forage fish have a direct impact on billfishing as threadfin herring and scaled sardines (pilchards) are go-to baits for sailfish and are also extremely important forage fish for other species.

While it might be a daunting task to formulate on a global scale, the dollar value of conservative forage fish management to recreational fishing is currently not known, and I don’t know if it will ever be determined. However, if one begins to extrapolate the added value calculated for the commercial fishery and think about the direct benefits to the recreational community, one will quickly see the magnitude of value forage fish have on recreational fishing beyond their use in the reduction fishery. This does not even consider the direct value of bait sold in tackle shops or by bait boats, but more so the valuable fish they support.

If we examine saltwater fishing in Florida alone, tourism and recreational activities supported by saltwater fish and birds directly dependent on forage fish generate $12.3 billion and 109,835 jobs annually. If you extrapolate this to the rest of the United States and farther around the globe, the number behind the dollar sign gets large quickly. So why is it that we continue to make fisheries management decisions directly impacting the health of forage fish that for the most part ignore their importance to the overall health of the ecosystem? The flashy term “ecosystem-based management” might be overused and, frankly, used in places it shouldn’t, but the cascading effects of forage fish management are something that cannot continue to be overlooked.

Thankfully, just like a small-market baseball team, forage fish are starting to garner the attention of the greater recreational community. If you’ve read any of my previous columns, you know that I will be the first one to call out environmental groups when I think they are stepping out of line, flying the preservationist banner while overlooking the conservation efforts of the angling community. But when it comes to forage fish, I think they might have it right by forming alliances like the one created by the PEW Environment Group and the International Game Fish Association (IGFA) on their campaign called “Florida Forage Fish.” While I won’t hold my breath too long because of other issues on which we continue to butt heads, when it comes to forage fish, the environmental groups seem to be working with the sport-fishing community rather than against us. Let’s hope this kind of mindset continues.