Letters From the West

Pacific Fish panel votes to protect forage fish salmon need

Pacific smelt (PEW Photo)

Pacific smelt (PEW Photo)

The Pacific Fishery Management Council voted unanimously Monday in Boise to prohibit development of commercial fisheries for several bait fish that are crucial to Idaho’s salmon when they live in the ocean.

Pacific saury, sand lance, smelt and other small fish make up as much as 50 percent of the diet of salmon during the one to three years they spend in the Pacific. But with increasing world demand for protein, these tiny fish are being relied upon to feed farmed fish, livestock and chickens.

Idaho members Herb Pollard, the vice chair and Cal Groen, were advocates for the amendments to several plans. The council, which includes members from Pacific states and Idaho, still must go through several steps before ensuring the forage fish are not exploited.

But the vote Monday set the direction for future policy.

“I think this is a turning point,” said Paul Shively, manager of the Pacific Fish Conservation Program of the Pew Environment Group. “It would be hard to go back on this decision.”
The 14-member panel appointed by the Commerce secretary heard from several Idahoans about the value of the forage fish to Idaho’s endangered salmon and steelhead.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council already manages some forage fish, such as herring and sardines. It agreed in 2012 to develop a program for protecting other species.

A study shows that the large schools of smelt, sand lance and saury that congregate in the estuary of the Columbia and off its mouth provide cover from predators – birds and maritime mammals – as the young salmon leave the river, Shively said.

A PFMC advisory committee in 2011 cited the “spectacular growth” of the global aquaculture industry as raising the likelihood for fishing to begin on currently untapped West Coast forage fish because aquaculture needs vast quantities of wild-caught forage fish as food for farmed seafood.Over the past few weeks, the council heard from almost 20,000 people  urging the prohibition of  the expansion of fishing to unmanaged West Coast forage species until they can evaluate the effect on the rest of the marine food web – including salmon.

The council’s action also comes after Pew placed a full page ad in he Idaho Statesman Sunday.

“I couldn’t be more pleased,” Shively said.

Rocky Barker is the energy and environment reporter for the Idaho Statesman and has been writing about the West since 1985. He is the author of Scorched Earth How the Fires of Yellowstone Changed America and co-producer of the movie Firestorm: Last Stand at Yellowstone, which was inspired by the book and broadcast on A&E Network. He also co-authored the Flyfisher's Guide to Idaho and the Wingshooter's Guide to Idaho with Ken Retallic. He also was on the Statesman’s team that covered the Sen. Larry Craig sex scandal, which was one of three Pulitzer Prize finalists in breaking news in 2007. The National Wildlife Federation awarded him its Conservation Achievement Award.

Posted in Letters from the West