The fate of the tiny fish that are crucial to Idaho’s salmon when they live in the ocean lies with a panel that’s meeting in Boise this week.
Sardines, herring, smelt and other small fish make up as much as 50 percent of the diet of salmon during the one to three years they spend in the Pacific. But with increasing world demand for protein, these tiny fish are being relied upon to feed farmed fish, livestock and chickens.
A growing list of scientific studies says these often unmanaged species of schooling fish are far more valuable to Idaho’s struggling salmon, whose runs can rise and fall by a factor of 10 based on ocean conditions such as the number of predators they face and how much feed is available.
“When we talk about healthy ocean conditions contributing to strong salmon runs, this in large part means there was plenty of food for the salmon to eat,” said Paul Shively, manager of the Pacific Fish Conservation Program of the Pew Environment Group.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council already manages some forage fish, such as herring and sardines, and decided in June to develop a program for protecting other species. But Shively and other salmon advocates want the 14-member panel appointed by the Commerce secretary to act soon, and boldly.
Herb Pollard, a former Idaho Department of Fish and Game regional director and National Marine Fisheries Service biologist, is one of two Idaho members on the council. He stood on the shore of Redfish Lake on Wednesday showing members from California, Oregon and Washington why the issue of forage fish matters here.
“These fish depend on ecosystems throughout their life cycle,” Pollard said. “They don’t get to complete the life cycle if you are missing a part of the cycle, and feed in the ocean is part of that cycle.”
The council announced in June its intention to prohibit any new fisheries on currently unmanaged forage fish unless and until the science shows they can be harvested at a sustainable level that safeguards their role in the ecosystem. Council staff has until 2013 to develop proposals that meet that aim.
The council is expected to discuss the program at its meeting at the Riverside Hotel beginning Thursday.
A new study shows that the large schools of smelt, sand lance and saury that congregate in the estuary of the Columbia and off its mouth provide cover from predators - birds and maritime mammals - as the young salmon leave the river, Shively said.
Cal Groen, former director of the Idaho Department of Fish and Game, also serves on the council. He’s glad to get to weigh in on an issue that could have a major impact on Idaho’s salmon and steelhead fishery. The council regulates only fish harvests south of Washington.
But Idaho’s salmon turn north when they leave the Columbia and face nets mostly in Washington and Alaska, which have separate regulating bodies.
“Forage fish affects everything,” Groen said. “It’s important that the council is looking at that.”
Shively fears that an industrial fishery on one or several of the unmanaged forage stocks could begin without regulation. He and other ocean activists want action before that happens.
“Too often, our fisheries are dealt with in a management-by-crisis mode,” Shively said.
Pollard urged patience.
“The Pew folks would have liked some really strong move, but the council has found it is best to work through a process and document its steps,” Pollard said. “I think our bottom line and theirs is the same.”