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Originally published Tuesday, May 22, 2012 at 3:37 PM

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Protect forage fish, cornerstone of our ocean's food web

While salmon may be iconic, we must not forget to protect the health and numbers of the cornerstone of our ocean's food web — namely, the less-well-known forage fish, writes guest columnist Paul Shively.

Special to The Times

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IT'S hard to envision a creature so tightly entwined in Pacific Northwest history, economics and culture as salmon. Each year, millions of them migrate through mountain streams, over dams, and past cities and farms on their way to the ocean, where they grow to maturity. As they pour into the Pacific, though, their survival depends to a large degree on the presence of an array of small, schooling species — commonly known within the scientific community as forage fish.

At the end of June, the Pacific Fishery Management Council will meet and, as usual, managers will spend the majority of their time discussing large predator species — like tuna, halibut and rockfish. These are well known to the public, yet we rarely think about the health of the prey these bigger fish all depend upon.

Fortunately, the council will also consider the need to better protect the little fish that form the linchpin of a healthy and productive coastal ecosystem. A new report by a group of leading marine scientists — including two researchers from the University of Washington — could provide valuable new food for thought at this key policy meeting.

Forage fish are the cornerstone of our ocean's food web. These animals form the link between tiny phytoplankton and zooplankton — churned toward the surface by wind-driven upwelling of cold, nutrient-rich waters — and the salmon and whales for which our region are famous. However, many of these stocks are subject to increasing global demand to create everything from hog feed and fertilizer, to bait for overseas industrial longline fisheries.

One notable source of this demand is the burgeoning global aquaculture industry, where it can take at least seven pounds of sardines to grow one pound of pen-raised tuna. For example, forage fish caught off the West Coast are frozen and shipped to places as far away as Australia to be fed to farmed bluefin tuna.

But there is hope. In April, the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, a research group composed of 13 pre-eminent marine scientists from throughout the world, released a new study outlining practical recommendations for the sustainable management of these crucial, small fish.

Key among the report's findings was the conclusion that conventional management policies do not adequately account for the wide population swings and vulnerability of forage fish, which are frequently caught in large numbers due to their schooling behavior. The report also found that herring, smelt, sardines and other such small species are twice as valuable in the water as they are in the net because of the role they play as food for commercially valuable predators such as salmon and albacore tuna.

Fishermen — both commercial and recreational — know that having an abundance of bait in the water keeps the public's favorite seafood plentiful and robust. That's why stakeholders around the Northwest are increasingly raising concerns about the potential impact of pulling large amounts of forage fish out of an already fragile marine ecosystem.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council now has a chance to help ensure a balanced and vibrant marine food web for generations to come. It can start by taking into account the recent scientists' findings and setting aside forage species that serve an important role in the marine food web, but for which we have little information about their populations or predators.

A well-functioning coastal ecosystem benefits all of us, whether we fish for a living, cast a line for relaxation, or simply visit our local fish market. The plight of salmon along the West Coast may be better known to the public, but new safeguards for forage species like sardines could have huge benefits for the health of our ocean.

Portland resident Paul Shively directs the Pacific Fish Conservation Campaign for the Pew Charitable Trusts, which also manages the Lenfest Ocean Program.

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