Little fish are most valuable when left in the sea, researchers say… (rocket science, it is…)

... so very, very complicated and complex... the ocean...


So very, very complicated — the Great Oceans — many would have us believe…

So very, very complicated that we must leave their “management” to an elite few… An elite few that will circle the globe in jetplanes, finger their latest techno-gadgets, attend the nicest of conferences at shiny conference centres, punching in their wireless access code with care and precision, while munching on the latest francais pastry from the continental breakfast…

Checking their email for the latest message on the ‘models’ churning out numbers back at the ranch… model this, model that… more ‘models’ then the latest fashion absurdities at the most esteemed Paris and New York runways…

Trust us, they say…

We have the ‘models’… they say.

we know, they EX-claim….

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

But is it really that complicated?

Before the computer… before Newton… before Jobs and Gates, Watergate, and GPS, and the Great War(s)… well… the Oceans weren’t that ‘complicated’.



‘Lots of fish in the sea’… as they say.

littlest fish (and stuff) eaten by bigger fish, those in turn eaten by bigger… you know… rinse and repeat…

But not complicated, not even complex.

Respected. Feared. Loved. The oceans were…

But really… tide came in, tide went out. Moon pull here, moon pull there.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

Well… now that there’s “Fisheries Science” and distant-water fleets, and technology, and depth finders, and drift nets, and sounders… well… there’s not as many flounders… or turtles… or Tuna … or bonito, or abalone, or dolphins, or whales, or salmon or herring, or sardine, and…

Well, unless you’re a once thriving coastal fishing community where boats and licenses to catch fish were handed down, or, maybe even more importantly, a once thriving coastal fishing community that had ancestors tracing back… well… who knows how long… fishing in the same spot.

The spots, the meatholes, handed down since well before anyone even wrote “Job”… the biblical one that is…

Those are flounder-ing. Lots of it. Flounder here, Flounder there. With an EI here and EI there…

Go ask a Newfie.

Go ask a canyon fisher… Fraser that is. Or one from the Necha-Koh, where once 25% of the Fraser River wild salmon originated.

_ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

And so headlines such as these… are they shocking? Are you surprised?

From the New York Times, Dec. 22, 2011:

A Call to Protect Humble Fish, for Seabirds’ Sake

When people talk about the environmental effects of salmon aquaculture, they usually focus on water pollution and the spread of disease to wild fish stocks. But there is another big problem: It takes more than a pound of fish to produce a pound of salmon.

Atlantic puffin -- from NY Times article

Farmed salmon are usually fed pellets made from ground-up fish like herring. Salmon farms have a prodigious appetite for this food, which has increased fishing pressure on creatures like herring, anchovies, krill and other “forage fish” at the bottom of the food web. Demand for fish oil and fish for the table is also a factor.




From the New York Times, Apr. 2, 2012:

Too Many Small Fish Are Caught, Report Says

An international group of marine scientists is calling for cuts in commercial fishing for sardines, herring and other so-called forage fish whose use as food for fish farms is soaring. The catch should be cut in half for some fisheries, the scientists say, to protect populations of both the fish and the natural predators that depend on them.

… Forage fish are an important link in the food chain, eating plankton and being consumed, in turn, by large fish like tuna and cod, as well as by seabirds and dolphins and other marine mammals. The task force estimated that as a source of food in the wild for larger commercially valuable fish, forage fish were worth more than $11 billion, or twice as much as their worth when processed for aquaculture and other uses.

“Sometimes the value of leaving fish in the water can be greater than taking it out”…

_ _ _ _ _ _ _

The ‘task force’ referred to is the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force:

With support from the Lenfest Ocean Program, the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University [on Long Island in New York] convened the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, a panel of thirteen preeminent marine and fisheries scientists from around the world.

The Final Report: Little Fish, Big Impact: Managing a crucial link in ocean food webs can be downloaded here – as well as a shorter Summary Report.

Here is the media release at the site.

Expert Task Force Recommends Halving Global Fishing for Crucial Prey Species

Forage Fish Twice as Valuable in the Water as in the Net

WASHINGTON – Fishing for herring, anchovy, and other “forage fish” in general should be cut in half globally to account for their critical role as food for larger species, recommends an expert group of marine scientists in a report released today.

The Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force conducted the most comprehensive worldwide analysis of the science and management of forage fish populations to date. Its report, “Little Fish, Big Impact: Managing a crucial link in ocean food webs,” concluded that in most ecosystems at least twice as many of these species should be left in the ocean as conventional practice.

A thriving marine ecosystem relies on plenty of forage fish. These small schooling fish are a crucial link in ocean food webs because they eat tiny plants and animals, called plankton, and are preyed upon by animals such as penguins, whales, seals, puffins, and dolphins. They are primary food sources for many commercially and recreationally valuable fish found around North America, such as salmon, tuna, striped bass, and cod.

The task force estimated that, globally, forage fish are twice as valuable in the water as in a net—contributing US$11.3 billion by serving as food for other commercially important fish. This is more than double the US$5.6 billion they generate as direct catch.

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Good on the task force for putting this out. It’s a pretty snappy looking report.

It’s just unfortunate that they rely on much of the same bumpf and buzz-words as every other “management” institution out there…  Precautionary approach… ecosystem-based management… blah, blah, blah.

_ _ _ _ _ _

From the Washington Post:

 Little fish are most valuable when left in the sea, researchers say

The smallest fish in the sea are more than twice as valuable when they’re eaten by bigger fish than when they’re caught by humans, according to a report released Sunday by a scientific task force.

The 120-page analysis by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force — a group of 13 scientists specializing in everything from fish ecology to marine mammals and seabirds — underscores the growing concern researchers have about the fate of forage fish, including anchovies, mehaden, herring and sardines that serve as food for bigger fish, sea birds and marine mammals.

Forage fish account for 37 percent of the world’s commercial fish catch, with an annual value of $5.6 billion. (Only 10 percent of forage fish caught are eaten by humans; the remaining 90 percent are processed into fish meal and fish oil, which feed livestock and farmed fish.)

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Going back to the illustration at the top…

Is it really that complicated?

Glad the ‘task force’ was able to get some press and get the word out… at least to people that can read it, and feel like plowing through 120 pages…

However, I think I remember learning about a cycle like that pretty early in my Elementary school days…

Why is it that we have to put $$ value this, $$ value that.

How much do you think a herring is worth to a Chinook?

How much is an “endangered” herring worth to a “red-listed” heron, or Coho, or eagle…?

$1, $100, $11 billion…?

No, it’s just survival.

It’s systems.

It’s cycles.

And they’ve been around a hell of a lot longer than “ecosystem-based” planning, or maxiumum sustained yield, or even the health benefits of Omega-3s… and sure as hell longer than ‘precautionary’ approach, or Cialis, or hatcheries, or goverment cuts and best practices.

Maybe a return or a cycle back, or a ‘control-alt-delete’ to a memory of systems and the fact that we can’t “manage” them would really pull us of this course with oblivion…

It’s not really that complex… it’s like the good ‘ol Golden Rule, or your car for that fact… you look after it… it’ll look after you…


12 thoughts on “Little fish are most valuable when left in the sea, researchers say… (rocket science, it is…)

  1. June Sharkey

    Only 10% is eaten by humans but how much is consumed by humans in the form of fish oil supplements? Chickens, pigs, dogs, cats and more also eat food made with fish oil and fish meal from this same source. Blaming aquaculture as the main reason for this perceived problem is unreasonable.

    The first article states that it takes one pound of fish to produce one pound of salmon. This is not a bad thing. Wild salmon require 15 pounds of salmon to gain one pound.

    Another point that is missing from your article is that “Worldwide annual fishmeal and fish oil production has remained fairly stable for the last 20 years reflecting the overall stability of global pelagic fish landings except during El Nino years.”

  2. June Sharkey

    I just reread my comment and noticed an error “Wild salmon require 15 pounds of salmon to gain one pound.” They require 10-15 pounds of small fish to gain one pound.

  3. salmon guy Post author

    thanks for the comment June,
    respectfully, your reasoning for suggesting that ‘wild’ salmon consume more feed fish than ‘farmed’ salmon is about the most ridiculous argument going. It’s on par with the old argument that clearcutting forests is just like mimicking natural disturbances (e.g. blowdown, mudslides, etc). Or mining just has a “small footprint”…

    I don’t know that many natural disturbances in a forest that cut down huge swaths of trees, remove them, then ship them raw to Japan…

    Same thing goes for some argument that “wild” salmon are damaging ‘natural’ ocean ecosystems, ‘cuz they eat too much feed fish… which seems to be the point you’re alluding to.

    Same principle as logs going to market, rather than falling down when they get old and becoming the rooting medium for the next generation of trees…
    …The feed fish that wild salmon eat (some wild salmon that is, as sockeye, for example pretty much just eat krill) is what causes the salmon to grow to adult size. Then when they return to spawn — their bodies become a massive food source for everything that is anywhere near a river bank. Not to mention, food for critters like endangered orcas, seals, sea lions, eagles, etc. in the marine environment.

    Those critters in turn become food for other critters, or die and their carcasses become food.

    Just like the illustration in the drawing. That was the point.

    They’re called ‘natural’ cycles for a reason.

  4. salmon guy Post author

    would be curious to see the references where this ‘theory’ came from — as it sounds pretty darn general.
    Sounds like one of those comments/theories that materializes out of a boardroom at the International Fishmeal & Fishoil Organization (IFFO) or Marine Harvest or marketing firms behind the BC Salmon Farmers Assoc.

    Would seem to support some of the ideas behind your blog…

    Seems you’re onto something in a recent post suggesting that things are often just framed as: “either/or” — which is done by all sides — but trying to combat that with simple other “either/or” information doesn’t get anyone anywhere. Just turns into a us vs. them pissing match.

    If you look up the roots of the word “protest” it reveals some curious tidbits… it comes from the Latin word protestari: ‘to declare publicly, testify’ from pro- meaning: ‘forth, before’ + testari “testify,” from testis “witness”.

    So essentially, folks are just bearing witness and declaring publicly their right and choice to oppose certain practices… especially corporate ones.
    Not sure why corporations and the Harper Gov, and Ms. Clark are so fearful of this… If all of these corporate practices are so ‘good’ and so ‘needed’ then what are they afraid of?

    If their corporate social responsibility policies and practices are so airtight, then doesn’t the ‘protestor’ simply look like the kooky individual on the street with the sign saying: “the end is nigh…”?

    Why so much fear and reaction to folks simply expressing opinions and bearing witness to what happens in their neighborhoods, local environment, etc.?

    Look at this huge knee-jerk reaction to these: “American-funded enviros”… well what sort of companies have come up and bought out previous stalwarts like BC Gas, or famed BC company Macmillan Bloedel, etc. hmmm… American companies.
    how is that any different?

    Maybe… just maybe… the fears are based on the fact that maybe the ‘protestors’ might actually have some valid points.
    So what better than to attack those points with other points… and the either/or vs. either/or arguments are on…

    as I say often: ‘marketing is everything & everything is marketing’

    thanks for visiting and leaving the comments.

  5. Priscilla

    Greatly poetic so if I might sum up?

    Up in their jetplanes,
    those pie in the skyers
    finger fast technos
    gadgets inspired,

    attending their meetings
    pricey conference centres,
    punching in codes
    to wireless access and chatline remotes

    with care and precision
    they munch on fine pastry
    french from the deli
    that trades down on Bay Street

    Checking their email for
    messages ‘models’ and
    churning out numbers
    for binders and spoilers

    while back at the ranch…
    model this,
    model that…
    more ‘models’
    than fashion absurdity’s got…

  6. June Sharkey

    Fair enough, wild salmon are not causing the collapse of small fish populations. It is an interesting comparison though when you think about the fact that with farmed fish they have been able to grow a healthy fish using 15 times less food than the fish would eat in the wild. These carnivorous fish are eating a mostly vegetarian meal and thriving. Why is that not a good thing? From what I understand farmers are trying to further reduce how much fish is in the feed.

    You didn’t mentioned my other points, however. Fish oil/meal is used in many types of feed including, but not limited to, poultry, hogs and pets. To blame aquaculture as the main use of these feed fish is silly. There are way more pigs and chickens in, North and South America, consuming way more feed in a day then all the fish farms surrounding the same areas. Take a look at this chart: Chicken feed at 1.69:1, Pork at 2.99:1 and salmon at 1.2:1.

    What about fish oil supplements for human use? You will find bottles of them in almost every health store, grocery store or pharmacy in North America. You can’t tell me that this current health trend is not causing a few problems?

    You also didn’t comment on the link I posted. In 20 years the amount of fish oil/meal used has not changed much. This means that a similar amount of small/forage/pelagic/feed (call them what you will) fish have been taken out of the oceans for the past 20 years. That sounds like a very sustainable fishery. Was this point taken into account in the models used by this report?

    Aquaculture uses it’s share of fish oil and fish meal to feed its fish. However, I don’t see any evidence that the industry is the biggest user of this product so I don’t see any reason why it should be singled out as the cause of the “problem” being modeled. Where is the campaign against fish oil supplements? What about the campaign to stop feeding pets food with fish meal from these sources? PETA and HSUS are against agriculture but that is because they want the world to be vegans.

    I don’t enjoy sardines, and although curried herring is a nice snack it won’t become a staple food in my kitchen. If I am going to eat a salmon, I am going to eat one that I know has not been commercially caught. Fish caught for recreation or farmed fish are a far better choice for the ocean environment than encouraging over fishing by commercial, large fish, fisheries.

    Where do you get your salmon for your dinner table?

  7. June Sharkey

    My blog is protesting the protesters… How can I be against protest? I think it is an important part of the democratic life we live. My problem is when these protesters call themselves “peaceful” but blockade a bus full of dignitaries or use their websites to call people names or comment on the size of their rear ends.

    As I say in my first article, peaceful protest are effective because they are so rare.

    Thanks for visiting my blog and being willing to have a conversation.

  8. salmon guy Post author

    thanks for the continued comments June. yes, I couldn’t take on all your points in my reply — if you look through the blog though, you’ll find that i’ve dealt with those issues in various post.

    This thought that farmed fish are grown with “less” fish than wild salmon, in my humble opinion, and respectfully in complete opposition to your opinion, is so sadly misguided. It’s been shopped around by various industries (e.g. multinational corporations with a very clear agenda: PROFIT).

    It misses the fact that wild fish, if left alone, don’t go to waste. There is no “waste” in natural ecosystems. There is a use for everything. Raising fish (carnivores at that) in open-pen nets, and feeding them fish meal that comes from fish that were living in an entirely different hemisphere (e.g. South American anchovies, etc.) Is absurd.

    the fact that industry suggests they have the ratio down to about 1.2:1 still doesn’t change the fact that that ratio is still a net loss. Without even getting into the fact that this is the actual ratio that is in the feed. How much of the feed fish were wasted and lost in the grinding up process in the first place. Plus not getting into the distant-water fishing fleet that had to catch them. Then the transportation to get those southern hemisphere fish to the northern hemisphere, then out to the isolated fish farms and so on and so on.

    And for what… well… a high-end food product that cost several dollars per pound to eat. With the local ecosystems where the salmon farms absorbing all of the potential and actual risk and the local ecosystems where the feed fish came from in the first place (not to mention the by-catch tossed overboard in the feed fish fishery) and the loss to the fish in those ecosystems that depend on them.

    It’s truly ludicrous that this comparison even comes up. And not really worth commenting on past that.
    The basic, fundamental reality is that wild salmon ecosystems operated fine well before humans came along. Then they operated fine when the first people were harvesting them. For example, most estimates suggest that the pre-contact salmon catch in the Fraser River was higher than the average commercial catch through the 1900s.

    The argument fronted about pigs, chickens, etc. — one also used by the BC fish farm association — actually does more damage to that argument. That’s the point. There are already enough damaging farming practices out there, that we don’t need to add salmon farming to that. If those practices are so damaging (e.g. terrible feed ratios) then why doesn’t the salmon farmer’s association lobby against them… and open them some space.

    The other difference is that all of those other farmed critters are affordable for near anyone to purchase and eat. I’m sure there’s no shortage of pork, chicken and beef fed at homeless shelters and soup kitchens. Farmed salmon… no way. It is little more than a meal for the well off. As such, it’s not worth the risk and the cost.

    This argument that since the catch levels are stable the fish must be stable is very sadly misguided. One could say similar things about mortgages in the U.S. prior to 2008. Sheez look how stable this shenanigan is…

    Or how about the Chinese mis-reporting their fisheries numbers for many years… and so on, and so on.

    I agree with the suggestion that salmon farming shouldn’t be blamed as the sole culprit, however, it’s certainly a big part of the problem. And with the year over year growth of this industry, it’s very concerning. Even more-so when sadly misguided arguments such as the wild salmon eat more feed fish… The industry has a heck of a lot more lobbying and marketing power to front misguided and plain wrong arguments… as opposed to this ridiculous push by the Harper government to shut down ‘charities’.

    yet I also agree that some of the comments (from all sides) get much to personal and also misguided. However, the industry is no better — such as launching defamation lawsuits then dropping them, and so on, and so on. Folks like Ms. Morton have seen no end to attacks either.

    But… the old two wrongs don’t make a right, is in play.

    Salmon on my dinner table. Wild, wild and wild. Sort of the point of my work on salmon research and advocacy over the last many years.
    Humans and wild salmon have had a long-term relationship. It should stay that way.

  9. salmon guy Post author

    i do agree with you on this one. However, all sides are guilty when it starts becoming personal. Blocking ‘dignitaries’… i don’t have a problem with that. “Dignitary” is a rather subjective term. There was no shortage of blocking ‘dignitaries’ in Ghandi’s day…

    And generally, always willing to engaged in conversation. I don’t tend to subscribe to either/or mentalities. And also subscribe to the idea that conflict is essential to need to new places — however, it does need to be respectful.

  10. June Sharkey

    Just so I understand your point of view. Where do you get your wild salmon? If you buy it in the grocery store you are not likely buying B.C. salmon. Thanks to groups like Sea Choice B.C. commercially caught fish is not considered sustainable. Do you agree with Sea Choice that wild Alaskan salmon is the best choice for your table? You have written about ocean ranching and its negative affects, but do you support it with your wallet?

    Not everyone can fish to put salmon on their own table so they buy it. Is your argument that they should either stop buying salmon at all or that they should support a huge fishing industry (which is located in another country that first farms the fish then releases the fish so they can be caught a year later)? Farmed salmon is a good alternative to overfishing large fish stocks.

    I don’t buy into the argument that native fishermen caught as many fish as current commercial fisheries do. Do you have any links to that information?

  11. salmon guy Post author

    personal choice is what it comes down to.
    the argument that farmed salmon is a good alternative to overfishing large fish stocks… sadly misguided. that was the point of the original post. Farming salmon requires overfishing feed fish, which are the foundation of the entire ocean food chain.

    Of course you don’t buy the argument that First Nations caught more fish than the average commercial fisheries through the 1900s… most folks from settler societies don’t. (either don’t want to, or just simply can’t imagine that truth… there are all sorts of ‘myths’ continually perpetrated and perpetuated by ethnocentric commentators and researchers and institutions and government ministries and corporate ‘research’… sad reality of the world we live in.)

    The Fraser River watershed was one of the most densely populated areas in the Americas pre-contact. Pretty much the sole reason for that was: salmon.

    A good reference for example:

    Garner and Parfitt (2006). “First Nations, Salmon Fisheries and the Rising Importance of Conservation” located at the Pacific Fisheries Resource Conservation Council.

    “As Brian Chisholm, Erle Nelson and Henry Schwarcz reported in the journal Current Anthropology, Coastal First Nations people in present-day British Columbia “obtained about 90% of their protein from marine sources.” The significance of the finding was that it greatly exceeded what had previously been thought to be the marine contribution to Coastal First Nation diets. Not only was the scientific team’s estimate about 40 per cent higher than estimates previously made, but the trio’s findings also suggested that there had been “little, if any, change in this proportion for the last 5,000 years…”

    …Based on a host of factors including the caloric requirements of people generally and more specifically (pre-contact aboriginal people did not, for example, have good access to vegetable sources of energy, or to many of modern-day dietary staples such as sugar, starch, eggs and dairy products), as well as historic accounts of salmon consumed in aboriginal communities as early as 1870, Hewes derived estimates on historic salmon consumption in what is now Coastal and Interior BC. The noteworthy thing about the figures is that they showed that salmon were important to First Nations across a broad landscape. People in widely dispersed Coastal communities, stretching from remote Haida Gwaii (the Queen Charlotte Islands), to the Heiltsuk
    people near present-day Bella Bella to the Cowichan people of southeast Vancouver Island all relied on somewhere between 400 and 500 pounds of salmon per person year in and year out.

    The number climbed even higher in known salmon-rich waters such as the Fraser River Delta, where per-capita consumption reached 1,000 pounds. Strikingly, such numbers were also replicated or near replicated in Interior regions far distant from the mouth of major rivers. For example, the Gitksan people near present-day Hazelton, well up from the mouth of the Skeena River were estimated to consume 500 pounds of salmon per capita, while in the Thompson/Nicola region in the dry Interior well north of the Fraser River canyon, per capita consumption was an estimated 900 pounds.”

    Follow the various references in there. For example:
    Chisholm, B.S., Nelson, E., Schwarcz, H.P., 1983. “Marine and Terrestrial Protein in Prehistoric Diets on the British Columbia Coast” Current Anthropology 24(3): 396–398

    Or, BC writer Terry Glavin’s: Dead Reckoning: Confronting the Crisis in Pacific Fisheries. (Douglas and McIntyre, 1999).

    You can also search research by Dr. Charles Menzies from UBC. Lots of great archaeological and anthropological research on the BC coast. Or various archaeological work done in the Fraser Canyon.

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