Forage fish are the small, nutrient-rich schooling fish that bigger marine creatures eat, and they are crucial both to healthy ocean food webs and to healthy fisheries.
In Atlantic Canada, for example, mackerel and herring are used as bait in lucrative lobster and crab fisheries and serve as a vital food sources for everything from whales and puffins to cod. In fact, around the world, forage fish are twice as valuable in the water as they are in a net.**
However, Canada is overfishing these critical species. Today, more than 54 per cent of total forage fish landings come from critically depleted stocks. And the problem is only getting worse. In Oceana Canada’s 2017 Fishery Audit, four forage fish stocks were considered healthy. Now, there’s only one, and the number of critically depleted forage fish stocks has more than doubled.
Consider capelin in northeast Newfoundland and Labrador: a key forage species for countless marine animals. Between the 1980s and 1991, the biomass of this forage fish stock declined from six million tonnes to less than 150,000.
Today, we know the population hasn’t recovered, but the numbers are unclear. Despite that uncertainty, DFO set a quota of nearly 20,000 tonnes in 2020. Compare that to Iceland, whose 2019/2020 quota for capelin was zero, based on rigorous stock assessments indicating the stock is near its limit reference point.
We must recover critically depleted forage fish by keeping fishing pressure to the lowest possible level and developing and implementing rigorous rebuilding plans with timelines and targets. Without action, forage fish will continue to decline, with devastating impacts to all the species, ecosystems and jobs that depend on them.
** Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force. 2012. Little Fish, Big Impact: Managing a Crucial Link in Ocean Food Webs. www.oceanconservationscience.org/foragefish/files/Little%20Fish,%20Big%20Impact.pdf
“ Capelin is more valuable in the water. More capelin in the water means our future generations will still have a chance to see the shoreline flashing with silver come spring, a chance to catch and taste Atlantic cod, and see the whales feasting.”