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FORAGE FISH 101

Menhaden with mouth in feeding mode.

This is the first of several blogs about Forage fish. The term forage fish is a loose one, and to a sport fisherman it doesn’t always apply to a true “fish”, but rather to a food source. The term is basically used to describe everything that a larger predator fish (think striped bass) would eat. Typical salt water based forage fish feed near the lower part of the food chain on plankton and other very small creatures, usually using their gill rakers and doing something called “filter feeding”. 

While they are eating microscopic foods these fish actually purify the water as they swim along and this benefits all other creatures that depend on clean water for survival.

Forage fish like this big Alewife Herring can become fun game fish at times, and will hit artificial fles and lures. When hooked, on light tackle, they are known for spectacular jumps !

Forage fish are an absolutely vital part of the food web and essential to the survival of all fish in the sea. A few examples of forage fish in our Mid Atlantic waters would be menhaden (bunker), butterfish, alewife and blueback herring and shad. Not coincidentally, these fish share the same waters and some have similar migration patterns to our gamefish populations.

 Note that when we refer to "River Herring" we are generally speaking of 2 species of  anadromous herring. The Alewife (above) and Blueback (below)

As a sportfisherman, my success relies on an abundance of forage fish. As a fishing guide, my clientele rely on my ability to understand, identify, predict and precisely locate the forage base. Chances are very good if I can locate the forage fish, I will find the predators that we seek, advise my client on the fly or artificial lure would resemble that forage fish best and whammo, Fish on! Happy client.

I would truly enjoy continuing on the happy fishing end of this subject, but real story only begins here. The abundance, or should I say lack of abundance, is the real issue for me not only as an angler, but as a human at the top of this food chain. Entire populations of the afformentioned species are in danger of collapse if we as humans, do not alter our current greedy and highly efficient fish harvesting methods.

To fully comprehend the situation at hand, you need to have a basic understanding of the fishes life cyle. Each one of these fish is different but similar in many respects. Some forage fish, like the herring or the shad are what we refer to as anadromous fish.Feel free to use this ten dollar word to impress your friends and family. All it means is that the fish reproduces in freshwater but lives its adult life in the saltwater (marine) environment. This is a critical fact because it tells you exactly where the fish are going to be each spring. Forage fish have one thing in common for sure. These shiny, oily fish always swim in mass for survival, and in very large tight schools and move in lock step wherever they travel. This presents an ideal situation for a commercial fisherman in the fish meal business, which these days use large nets and spotter planes to efficiently catch them up. In fact, the nets are so heavy, they cannot be lifted, so they must use a vacuum pump to suck the fish up and get the load on board the vessel.

Purse Sein Net 

Forage fish like river herring and menhaden which are rich in essential oils, omega 3 and fish based protein are in extremely high demand these days. A billion pounds of menhaden alone are converted into fish oil and fish meal each year. This fish is used in everything from cosmetics to salad dressing. The majority of the fish meal created from menhaden is used to feed the animals and fish that we consume, It is a cheap source of high protein and filler material for manufacturers to add to all kinds of products. When used as fertilizer for corn and other crops it enhances growth. As a feed for cattle, hogs, chickens and aquaculture fish it accelerates growth and gets them fatter and off to market faster.

When fish meal is used in household pet food it becomes something that we all need to be aware of but we will save that for a future blog.

We have the ability to “feed the need” and maintain a sustainable harvest at the same time, if we change our old ways. Commercial harvesters and lawmakers need to act modestly,be aware and act upon the warning signs that we have right in front of us, right now. Among many solutions, we need to adopt new conservation minded measures like adding more observers on vessels and at the docks and putting caps on harvest.
If done correctly and in a precautionary, manner, there is no reason to loose jobs or close down fisheries. A healthy forage fishery would not only maintain a healthy marine food web but support commercial and recreational fishing industries and help to keep local economies strong.