This spring, as I spend most of my weekends fishing for chinook salmon, it's hard not to recall fishing memories with family and friends. In fact, some of my fondest recollections involve the fishing tales of my grandfather.
I caught my first fish on a fly rod when I was 10. My grandfather was an avid angler, so I guess you could say fishing is in my blood.
I'm not alone. Almost 1 million anglers along the West Coast hit the waters in 2011 almost 94 percent of these trips in California alone. But healthy populations of popular sport fish such as chinook salmon and lingcod depend on smaller species, so-called forage fish as a source of nourishment.
Forage fish herring, smelt, and anchovies, among others make up the menu for much of the wildlife in our ocean. They eat tiny plants and animals like plankton and are eaten in turn by bigger, more familiar species like sport fish, seals, whales, and sea birds. Indeed, forage fish can compose up to 70 percent of a chinook salmon's diet.
If the only reason to catch forage fish was to put them on our dinner tables, there might not be a problem. It's the increasing global demand for these little fish as an ingredient in products like animal feed that has made catching them more attractive than ever. By weight, forage fish now account for more than a third of fish caught commercially worldwide. Yet when we take too many of them out of the ocean, we take food out of the mouths of wild salmon, whales, and other marine predators.
Now, however, we can protect this critical resource. The California Fish and Game Commission in November adopted a policy directing state fishery managers to consider the full ecological benefits of forage species when they set catch guidelines. But schools of fish don't just stay within the waters of California. The Pacific Fishery Management Council has an opportunity this year to enact lasting protections of forage fish along the entire West Coast. Many species are not managed at all, meaning that fishing can begin without any catch limits or safeguards. The council can change this.
Last year, the council established an admirable goal of prohibiting new fisheries from targeting unmanaged forage fish until the science is in place to determine the effect on the rest of the ocean food web. This makes good sense. Unmanaged forage species such as saury, smelt, and sand lance may not capture the public's imagination in the same way as a breaching humpback whale or a pelican gliding low across the water, but they are nonetheless an important food source for ocean wildlife.
To its credit, the council in April adopted its first-ever fishery ecosystem plan, with protection for currently unmanaged species of forage fish as the plan's first order of business. The council should follow through on its commitment and act quickly.
One of my favorite photos is a shot of my grandfather fishing with my mom out in Neah Bay, just off the northern tip of Washington state, back in the '40s. And I'm sure many anglers around California have similar memories.
Wild salmon runs are much smaller today, but they're not gone yet. By looking out for some of the smallest fish in the sea today, we'll have plenty of fish to catch tomorrow.
Paul Shively is manager of the Pacific Fish Conservation Program at the Pew Charitable Trusts. He lives in Portland, Ore.