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Oregon poised to protect forage fish for salmon, ocean ecosystem

Oregon fishery managers are quietly embarking on a plan to ban new commercial fisheries on several species of small ocean fish considered diet staples for salmon and sea birds.

The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife has drafted a plan to ensure that certain smelts, squids, sand lance and other so-called "forage fish" remain prey for larger fish like salmon and myriad sea birds in Oregon's near-shore waters.

The draft plan does not restrict any current commercial fisheries. But it does address "by-catch" that occurs during commercial seasons for species such as sardine and Pacific whiting in which non-target species are caught.

It also contains provisions that would allow future commercial fishing for sand lance and other species governed in the plan, but only if data can show that it would not negatively affect the population of that particular species and the overall ecosystem.

These often ugly, under-the-radar fish currently aren't targeted by the fishing industry, and Oregon's fish managers want to keep it that way. 

"We recognize the extremely high value of these forage fish to the ecosystem," says Maggie Sommer, fisheries management section leader for the ODFW's Marine Program based in Newport. "We want to preserve and protect the status quo of no directed fisheries on them in Oregon."

The draft plan addresses only the populations of forage fish within the 3 miles of state-managed ocean water along the Oregon coast. It mirrors forage-fish protections put in place in May by NOAA-Fisheries for the federally managed waters outside of that state zone and out to international waters 200 miles offshore.

There are already some forage fish that are currently tracked and managed individually in Oregon commercial seasons. Those include sardine, herring and mackerel that, in some years, are caught and sold commercially in large numbers.

This is the first look at an overall management approach in near-shore waters for smelt, saury, bristlemouths and several squid species not currently targeted commercially in Oregon.

Only Alaska has a similar ban on new commercial seasons on near-shore forage fish, according to the Pew Charitable Trust, which has trumpeted forage-fish protection for years. But Oregon's draft plan comes as other eastern states and the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council are mulling similar bans.

"There's been a growing and evolving understanding and body of science on the importance of forage fish," says Gilly Lyons, a Pew policy analyst in Portland who has worked for several years on forage-fish protection. "There has been a coalescing of the scientific community and fish managers that it makes good sense to protect them and the fisheries that depend upon them."

The agency is taking public comment on the draft plan through July 13. The Oregon Fish and Wildlife Commission is scheduled to vote on the plan in September. If adopted, it would go into effect in 2017.

While some of these forage fish are found mainly far offshore and make only rare appearances in Oregon waters, other forage fish play large roles in the near-shore ecosystem.

Sand lance, for instance, will whip themselves into thick schools called "bait balls" that get picked apart by sea birds such as the marbled murrelet and the common murr.

"Murrs really enjoy a sand lance meal," Lyons says.

Others, including whitebait smelt and saury, join krill, sardines and anchovies as key feeding targets for adult salmon and steelhead during their years at sea. They also provide key "cover" for young salmon and steelhead when they venture to sea as smolts.

If forage fish are abundant, the salmon and steelhead smolts are less likely to be targeted by larger predators.

"It's a double benefit to salmon and steelhead," Lyons says.

Forage fish are targeted species elsewhere in the world and can have a tougher time retaining their foothold in the ocean food web than if they were not commercialized. 

"So if we can sort of keep it that way, it's a good thing," Lyons says.

Reach Mail Tribune reporter Mark Freeman at 541-776-4470 or mfreeman@mailtribune.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/MTwriterFreeman.

A rhinoceros auklet makes a meal out of sand lance outside Point Hudson, Wash. Photo by Andrew Reding, courtesy Pew Charitable Trusts