University of Delaware
delware environmental institute

News Journal: New limits hope to protect game fish

In the undersea world of oceans, bays and estuaries, they are the fish that we rarely think of or even see: Atlantic silverside minnows, bay, silver and striped anchovies and sand eels. But it is these little fish that fuel the food chain all the way up to giant sharks, blue fin tunas, striped bass, bluefish and mackerels.

We may not eat minnows or sand eels but the fish we do eat consume them by the hundreds of thousands. An 800-pound blue marlin fish, for instance, will eat 8 to 32 pounds of smaller fish every day. Pound for pound, immature fish, sea birds and marine mammals like whales and dolphins eat even more.

These little fish – bottom of the food chain species – eat plankton and algae. They are such a critical part of the ecosystem that they take food nothing else eats and convert it into energy straight up the food chain to the biggest apex predator: us.

They are called forage fish and they are intermediaries in the ocean and esturine food chain, important players in the marine ecosystem. But until just weeks ago, there were no boundaries, no catch limits and no oversight on some of these key species. In fact, there isn't even much data on populations, reproduction or their status in the marine world.

Earlier this month, the Mid-Atlantic Fisheries Management Council, at least for now, prohibited the development of new fisheries and expansion of existing ones for unregulated forage fish throughout the region from 3 miles off the beach to 300 miles out in the ocean. The action is like a moratorium designed to give regulators time to learn more about the science of how these little fish fit into the ecosystem.