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Little Fish in Big Trouble, Researchers Say

Courtesy of the Pew Charitable Trusts
Courtesy of the Pew Charitable Trusts

 

Global demand is surging for forage fish which are used to make pet food, cosmetics, nutritional supplements, fertilizer and feed for animals and aquaculture operations. Their eggs are a delicacy. They are vulnerable to pollution and climate change which affect the ocean and habitats. Yet, Florida has few rules directly capping their catch, and those in effect do not protect their role in ocean ecosystems.

Forage fish are small species that serve as food for marine animals including birds, dolphins, groupers and snappers. Florida’s forage fish include striped mullet, scaled sardine (pilchard), round scad (cigar minnow), pinfish and Atlantic thread herring. These schooling fish feed on microscopic plants and animals and in turn serve as critical food for fish and wildlife. They make up about 20 percent of the commercial catch off Florida’s shores.

Why should surging demand for forage fish concern anglers, environmentalists and those who enjoy eating seafood? According to a resolution passed in June 2015 by the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC), forage species fuel fishing and recreation that contribute more than $12.3 billion to Florida’s economy, tens of millions of pounds of fresh seafood, and more than 100,000 jobs annually in Florida. FWC’s goal is to ensure a sufficient population of forage fish to maintain Florida’s fishing stocks, marine ecosystems and avian species that depend on forage fish.

FWC also seeks to require essential scientific data about forage species to guide expansion of existing forage fishing operations and development of new industries that target these species as well as protect forage fish habitat — such as mangroves, sea grasses, estuaries, rivers, and bays –including their water quantity and quality.

“It’s getting tougher to find bait fish,” said Capt. Dave of Capt. Dave’s Live Bait in Miami. And Jose Guillen of Don’s Bait and Tackle in Homestead agrees. Guillen has sought bait for 20 years and said he usually looks for pilchards. “They’re a little hard to come by, but not because of people catching too many. It has to do with water temperature and the environmental effects of development on mangroves where small fish breed and develop.” Guillen does not think there has to be a catch limit but says people should take care of the marine environment as much as possible.

Waldo Tejera Jr. wrote about where and how to find bait in South Florida here: www.islamoradasportfishing.com, which may be helpful if forage fish become harder and harder to find.

This fall the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission, which includes Florida representatives, is expected to make a decision on managing menhaden (also known as pogies) possibly aiming to leave 75 percent of the menhaden unharvested so menhaden can continue to go about their business as essential food for numerous predators as well as continue to filter water while ingesting plankton. This commission’s annual meeting is set for mid-October in Norfolk, Va.

Florida Guides Association President Captain Charlie Phillips wrote about the importance of baitfish in a February 2017 newsletter, noting, “There is one ingredient that keeps the game fish around, and therefore the guide busy — bait.” To keep bait around, quality habitat and clean water are requirements, he said, “both of which have been altered quite a bit in Florida over the past 100 years.”

The Florida Forage Fish Coalition, led by the International Game fish Association, aims to share information and ideas on how to conserve Florida’s valuable marine resources and ensure the state keeps its reputation as the Fishing Capital of the World. If you want to help, for starters, you can sign a pledge supporting forage fish and their habitats at www.floridaforagefish.org.

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