Whether it’s for fish oil pills or feed for livestock, commercial fisheries targeting species long ignored by fishermen are emerging with relative frequency worldwide.

But fishing the bottom of the food chain could have disastrous effects on the predator fish, such as tuna or striped bass, that people like to eat. The absence of these forage fish can also effect populations of  sea mammals people revere, such as dolphins and whales.

Recognizing this, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted last month for the first time to begin regulating species such as sand eels, silversides (spearing), and nearly 50 others typically thought of as baitfish — if thought of at all.

The measure is just awaiting the signature of the Secretary of Commerce.

“There was no management at all,” said Carl LoBue, a member of the council’s Ecosystem and Ocean Planning Advisory Panel. “Basically, anyone could have gone out, gotten a permit and it wouldn’t have mattered how many they were harvesting.”

LoBue, a senior marine scientist at The Nature Conservancy on Long Island, an environmental advocacy group, called the measure “a no brainer.”

“It’s a big step forward and one that really gets people out of the old mindset,” he said.

The council oversees fishing in U.S. waters from New York though Virginia, to the border of North Carolina, and about 200 miles out to sea.

“It’s a good chunk of ocean,” LoBue said.

Locally, seals, dolphins and whales, which have all become almost a regular site in the oceans around Long Island, depend heavily on these forage fish.

The presence of Atlantic menhadan, or bunker, for example, is widely credited with attracting humpback whales to New York Bight, from New Jersey to Montauk. 

Menhedan fisheries are now regulated through the Atlantic States Marine Fisheries Commission.

“The same idea permeated through that process, with the menhaden,” LoBue said. “Here we have what some people consider the most important fish in the sea in this region — everything eats it, including the great whales — and there were absolutely no rules on it.”

The measure caps the haul on these forage fish at 1,700 pounds, which is about no more than what people are currently catching — if at all.

For example, sand eels are fished for, but typically only for bait, and at or below the new regulatory levels.

“This is designed to allow fisheries that have already developed to continue, but not expand,” LoBue said. “It’s a freeze-the-footprint approach. The world is changing so fast, so we’re just trying to take a deep breath and put a cap on what we have.”

Any prospective fishery would have to demonstrate to the council, using scientific evidence, that its actions would would have no negative effects on the ecosystem.

“None of our existing fisherman are going to suffer from this,” LoBue said.

One of those fishermen, Oceanside charter boat captain John McMurray, is a council member who helped develop the new regulations, which were three years in the making.

“From my perspective, it’s an important, pro-active step as far as keeping the bottom of the food chain intact,” McMurray said. “No one is really fishing on these things yet, at least not on the level we’re hoping to prevent, but it was almost certainly coming on something like sand eels.”

He and LoBue referred to all these forage fish as low value/high volume, meaning they wouldn’t fetch much money unless they were caught in massive amounts.

Rumors have swirled, McMurray said, that with the collapse of New England groundfishing, some boats had been gearing up to target certain forage fish species like sand eels.

And, politically, once a fishery is up and running it’s harder to regulate.

“We kind of wanted to head that off,” he said. “Once it starts and people invest in a fishery like that, and they buy gear, it’s very hard to regulate now we’re dealing with economic issues.”

Top Photo: Silversides (spearing) photo by Chris Paparo/Fish Guy Photos

Check out this baitfish video, also from Fish Guy Photos!