Soapbox Update January 29th, 2016

A Forward Look at Fisheries Management

Tillamook Bay spring chinook
Hunter Chamness with a 21 pound spring Chinook from the jaws of Tillamook Bay. Caught on a whole rigged green label herring With professional guide Bob Rees

I’ve been told more than once, “Denial ain’t just a river in Egypt!” It’s hard to believe, especially after coming off some impressive production in recent years but our forage base is in trouble. It was only 2 summers ago that the anchovy schools were so big right off the coast of Washington where we were salmon fishing, that I could look off of my bow-deck and see what I thought were millions of dimes hovering in the water. In reality, we were seeing huge schools of anchovies and their flaring gill plates when they were feeding or breathing in the water below. The schools seemed so abundant that even the nearby seabirds weren’t interested in feeding on them any longer; they were already full.

So many commercial fishing jobs and even mine as a fishing guide, rely on abundant numbers of herring, sardines and anchovies for product. I don’t know how many plug-cut herring or whole-rigged anchovies I’ve gone through in my 20-year career but it measures in the thousands of pounds. I’m just one of about 700 fishing guides just in the state of Oregon.

Many of us older fisherman remember the days of jigging herring on the docks at Yaquina Bay or dipping Eulachon smelt on the Cowlitz or Sandy Rivers, maybe even netting Surf smelt in Yachats. These days are gone and maybe we’re not talking about it enough. If you’re like me, you might even be thinking that the disappearance of one species of forage fish may not be that big of a deal, it’ll just get replaced by another species. The disappearance of forage fish may be harder to quantify but it’s certainly not easy to justify.

It doesn’t take an oceanographer to understand our commercially important forage fish are disappearing and what the consequences of this loss will be. I’ve already written on our role in disappearing species on this planet but I think our responsibility really hits home when we don’t have generous salmon seasons or in the case of lower Columbia River sturgeon, no consumptive season whatsoever.

Scientists and fishermen are already witnessing uncharacteristically different behaviors in our ocean ecosystems. We observed many whales in the lower Columbia River this year when they typically forage in the ocean. It’s becoming well known that when forage fish populations decline, higher densities of these fish are witnessed closer to shore. Scientists in Alaska noticed modified behaviors in whales, sea birds and forage fish in Prince William Sound last winter and spring, largely related to an increase in water temperatures. Certain species of forage fish were not present in their wintering grounds and it had a subsequent effect on the marine ecosystem that has supported ocean wildlife for who knows how long.

What’s becoming increasingly important is a precautionary approach to fisheries management. Undoubtedly, the United States likely has the most intensive management measures in place of any country in the world but we still have our problems. The bottom line is we don’t even know, what we don’t know and many of these populations of forage fish are the prime example. I think we can all imagine how difficult it would be to produce an accurate population assessment on these species, not to mention how expensive it is.

Recent action by the Pacific Fishery Management Council recognizes the need for proactive management measures on forage fish that are unmanaged. Those under-utilized species may not have a high commercial value in the US market just yet but they do in other parts of the world. Once those stocks are depleted, foreign fleets and investors will come to more productive waters where we hope the clear choice will be to leave these little known fish (Pacific Saury, Pacific Sand lance) in the ocean ecosystem and not caught and processed for livestock or net-pen Bluefin tuna. The Pacific Council is known for its forward thinking but in other coastal states, where intensive, directed fisheries are already in place, decisions like these can cause economic hardships to fishermen and ports. Fishermen of course, aren’t new to emergency closures and everyone’s goal should be sustainable populations of fish for future generations of fishermen. The science is clear that once you fish down a stock to critically low levels, it is difficult to bring back in numbers, if it’s possible to bring them back at all.

We’re on a countdown to the 40th anniversary of the Magnuson-Stevens Act in April and our greatest opportunity to make sure appropriate revisions are in place so we keep doing this right. Reauthorizations don’t come around all that often (be grateful for that) so managers must look into their collective crystal balls and anticipate what problems we’ll face in the future, especially due to ocean acidification and climate change. We’ve managed to change the land and seascapes dramatically in the last century and we’ll have reparations to pay in the future. Let’s make sure the future pain is planned for and hopefully managed so we can continue to rely on our oceans for food, recreation and wildlife.