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NOAA Just Moved to Protect Puny Fish

Why a new ban is a big deal for the ocean’s tiniest creatures

Silverside fish are among the species protected by a new West Coast commercial fishing ban on foraging fish. (Stephen Frink/Corbis )

It’s hard to be a little fish in the big sea—small forage fish are pretty low on the food chain. But that doesn’t mean the ocean’s tiniest residents are unimportant. Now, reports Phuong Le for the Associated Press, the Pacific Ocean’s littlest fish have received a big boost from the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration with new regulations that protect them from being caught by commercial fisheries on the West Coast.

The move bans fishing of eight kinds of small fish and invertebrates known as “forage fish.” From round herring to Pacific sand lance and silversides, these small creatures are inextricably connected to other species. Forage fish serve as food for bigger animals—birds, mammals and large fish that are themselves critical links in the ocean’s food system.

Some forage fish, like anchovies and sardines, are already protected by the federal government. Right now, other forage fish aren’t at risk from commercial fishermen—but that doesn’t mean they won’t be. Le writes that demand for fish meal and oil from foraging fish is growing. Fish meal from forage fish is used to make not only the pellets that farmed fish eat, but to feed livestock like poultry and even cows.

In a release, NOAA characterizes the ban as proactive.  Under the new regulations, which prohibit direct commercial fishing in the U.S. West Coast Exclusive Economic Zone, foraging fish are now considered “ecosystem component species” that directly impact the lives of bigger fish protected under federal law.

Will federal protection of dinky fish be enough to protect the marine food chain? Maybe. But another threat to ocean life lurks above the water—climate change. A recent analysis of 632 studies on marine ecosystems found that increasing carbon dioxide, warmer waters and ocean acidification will reduce the diversity of marine life and could collapse the ocean food chain. Given that dire outlook, it makes even more sense to protect the sea’s smallest fish while there’s still time.

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