If You Love Seabirds, You Should Care About Forage Fish: A Call to Action


sea gulls
What do birds have to do with fish? Forage fish are types of fish that birds, like these seagulls, specifically forage for. Learn more about how overfishing and clean water impacts these birds!

Did you know that almost half of all seabird populations have either seen a decline or are suspected to be experiencing population declines? It is estimated that globally, seabird populations have dropped 70%. Strong seabird populations require a healthy marine environment and healthy populations of fish and other marine life to support them. The problem is that the oceanic environment is under many pressures, including commercial demands for seafood. So, where do forage fish come into the picture?

Forage fish are those fish that seabirds and other large, commercially desirable, marine life depends upon. They include sardines, anchovies, and herring, and other wildlife from tuna, dolphins and whales, to Bald Eagles, Ospreys and Puffins, depend upon them as sources of food.  Simply put, to sustain flourishing seabird and marine life numbers (and to fulfill the commercial demand for seafood), there needs to be enough forage fish available as prey on a sustainable level. The problem is that the forage fish are disappearing. They’ve found their way into our lives in varied ways. They’re used to make fertilizer, cosmetics, fish meal for livestock and fish farming. The commercial drain on these fish means fewer fish available for seabird populations.

Image result for osprey with fish

You may ask, as a Pennsylvania resident, with only 57 miles of coastline at the mouth of the Delaware Estuary, why your support is needed for marine life, specifically to protect forage fish?  The Delaware River, although freshwater, is an important waterway for what are known as anadromous fish.  These fish spend their lives in the ocean, yet they come into freshwater at certain times of the year to spawn.  Salmon do this on the west coast. Certain species of forage fish do this in the Delaware. Locally, you may be familiar with the Shad Fest. Shad is a forage fish, and in Pennsylvania it is an economic windfall to the river towns around Lambertville who celebrate the shad run every spring. It is a big event. Other forage fish that spawn in the Delaware are Blueback Herring and the Alewife.  Overfishing of these fish in the ocean means fewer of them can come into the Delaware River to breed and populations continue in a state of decline. Imagine a Shad Fest and no shad show up. Sustainable practices for the management of these and other forage fish is needed.

Image result for herring
Shad and Herring (pictured here) are important forage fish. #HugAHerring and Save Our Seabirds with Bucks County Audubon Society this year at any of our upcoming spring events!

There is already some good fishery legislation out there, yet it needs to be enhanced. It needs to be strengthened so that the US can continue to lead the way in sustainable fishing. By keeping fish populations healthy, commercial fisheries would continue to benefit economically, and healthy seabird populations can be maintained. The Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) was a bipartisan effort enacted in 1976 and was reauthorized in 1996 and 2006. It is currently undergoing additional reauthorization and the National Audubon Society is seeking to strengthen provisions in several areas including: conserving forage fish; protecting fish habitat; creating fishery management plans; and minimizing bycatch.  Given the importance of forage fish both to the environment and the economy, do you know that there isn’t even an agreed upon national definition of what a forage fish is?

National Audubon Society has made conservation of forage fish a priority this year and they need your help. On April 10-12, National Audubon Society is hosting a “Forage Fish Fly-In” in Washington, D.C. It would be wonderful if you can attend but if not, there are still ways that you can become involved. Whether you have an interest in attending the Fly-In or whether you would like to participate in some other capacity, contact Emily Ferrin eferrin@audubon.org. She will be happy to share ways that you can be a part of this initiative at a grass-roots level. Remember, it all counts whether you spend 3 days in Washington or write a letter to your Congressman. Help National Audubon Society influence the politicians and put fisheries on a sustainable footing for both economic and environmental reasons. The seabirds will thank you!


Barbara Beck – Guest Blogger and Life Adventurist


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