GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) — Federal fisheries managers for the West Coast are poised for a major change in the way they make sure that plenty of fish remain in the sea.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting in Portland this week. On Tuesday, it's expected to adopt a new ecosystem management approach to managing the catch off Oregon, Washington and California.
That means that when making decisions on sport and commercial fishing seasons, quotas and fishing methods, the council will take into account factors such as habitat, and the impacts on other marine species that may depend on another species for food or be a source of food for others.
The Fisheries Ecosystem Plan is nonbinding, but conservation groups are enthusiastic, especially about a key provision to consider future protections for forage fish that aren't already targeted by a fishery. Forage fish are the little fish that the big fish depend on for food. Forage fish that would otherwise be eaten by larger fish, such as tuna and salmon, are caught for bait, food for farm-raised fish, and fertilizer.
"It's the beginning of a paradigm shift in fisheries management," said Paul Shively, a campaign manager for Pew Charitable Trusts. "We've always managed our oceans on a species-by-species level. By developing an ecosystem plan we begin to look at how everything is connected in the ocean."
The old-style management has been an official failure since in 2000, when federal fisheries managers had to declare a fishery disaster for Pacific groundfish after a decade of declining catches in the West Coast's biggest fishery, which include popular species such as rockfish and lingcod. The government adopted strict fishing restrictions, bought out half the groundfish fleet, limited the areas bottom-dragging trawlers could fish, adopted habitat protections, and took steps to limit the numbers of unwanted fish dumped overboard dead — known as bycatch. Since then, species have been rebounding.
The National Ocean and Atmospheric Administration has been interested in taking a more ecosystem approach since 2006, when the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the foundation law of fisheries management, was renewed, said former NOAA chief Jane Lubchenco.
"Taking an ecosystem approach to fisheries management is widely viewed as an enlightened approach to fishery management, because it recognizes that the target species of interest exists within a broader ecosystem," said Lubchenco, now a visiting professor at Stanford University.
But change comes slowly to fisheries management. Each council operates independently, and the Pacific Council began working up the current ecosystem management plan in 2009, when it appointed two advisory panels representing a range of interests, including the fishing industry.
Council member Gway Kirchner, a marine program manager for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the ecosystem management program was expected to pass, because the fishing industry helped draft it.
She added that the forage fish protections are on an independent course likely to result in regulations protecting species that are not already exploited, the way sardines and anchovies are.