Forage Fish Management Plan: A plan for managing the forage fish resources and fisheries of Washington


Published: September 1998

Pages: 77

Author(s): Greg Bargmann

Executive Summary

This document contains a plan for the management of forage fish resources and fisheries in Washington state. The plan will be used to guide resource management decisions, establish priorities and develop fishing regulations.

Forage fish are small, schooling fish which serve as an important source of food for other fish species, birds and marine mammals. Examples of forage fish species are herring, smelt, anchovies and sardine. Both commercial and recreational fisheries exist for forage fish.

Forage fish populations tend to fluctuate greatly. These fluctuations are caused by natural factors, such as changes in environmental conditions and reproductive success, but can also be caused by fishing. Abundance levels of forage fish are marked by short periods of high abundance followed by lengthy periods of lessened abundance. No management strategy will produce stable populations of forage fish, however, proper management action can help maintain healthy populations.

Little is known of the biology or abundance of most stocks of forage fish: population levels, age composition and mortality rates are unknown. An exception is herring, a species for which we have more information. Basic stock identification is uncertain for several species.

Commercial landings of forage fish comprise approximately 3% of the commercial landings of all finfish caught in Washington. Most of the fishing harvest is taken by commercial activity: substantial commercial fisheries exist for herring, eulachon (Columbia River smelt) and surf smelt. There is growing interest in establishing a commercial fishery for a resurgent population of sardine along the Washington coast. Current levels of commercial harvest of forage fish are approximately 1.7 million pounds annually. Substantial recreational fisheries for some species of forage fish (surf smelt and eulachon) exist; however very limited information is available on the recreational fishery.


There are three important points to the development of this forage fish plan:

  • Forage fish are subjected to fisheries, both commercial and recreational. These fisheries are often directed at spawning aggregations of fish.
  • Forage fish are a key component of the marine ecosystem in Washington.
  • Key management and biological information is usually lacking for most forage fish stocks.

The management plan accounts for these three factors by proposing an approach to management that:

  • manages forage fish from an ecosystem based approach rather than a single species approach,
  • utilizes a precautionary, conservative approach to fisheries management.

Ecosystem Management

Most management plans emphasis yield (or catch) as a major goal. This plan emphasizes the role of forage fish in the ecosystem and considers catch on a secondary basis. The availability of forage fish to provide a source of food for salmon, other fish, marine birds and marine mammals will be a primary consideration. To achieve this, potential catch will be foregone if needed.

Development of annual, or stock specific, harvest plans will consider the impact of harvest on the availability of forage fish.

Precautionary Approach

The precautionary approach utilizes caution when the agency is faced with a decision and a lack of information. The approach calls for reducing fishery or other activities if there is reason to believe that the activities will cause significant harm, even if such a link has not been established by clear scientific evidence.

Specific goals for the management of forage fish resources are outlined in this plan. Treaty Indian tribes are not part of this policy and are not bound by it. Department staff will utilize the policy in development of joint management plans with the tribal governments.

If adopted, this plan will be used as a vehicle for forage fish management. It will be used to guide staff decisions regarding resource use, interagency meetings, joint meetings with tribes and to set research priorities.

The plan will also be used as a basis to develop detailed fishing regulations usage plans. The plan will be developed in the near future using the two major principles proposed here (ecosystem management and a precautionary approach). These usage plans will be developed by species and area and include additional opportunity for public and industry involvement.