The National Audubon Society is well-known for their dedication to protecting birds. But, they are also currently taking steps to protect a group of fish known as forage fish. These fish serve as a vital resource for many bird species, but they are specifically important for an endangered species known as the California least tern.
Forage fish are small species of fish that feed mostly on plankton and act as an essential food source for a variety of animals within the marine ecosystem including mammals, birds, and other fish. According to Audubon, the Northern anchovy is the most important of these fish for seabirds like the California least tern. In November of 2018 several representatives from Audubon went before the Pacific Fisheries Management Council to advocate for better, more science-based regulations of forage species like anchovies.
Megan Flaherty, Restoration Program Manager for the San Diego Audubon Society, was one of the attendees who spoke before the council. She says the Northern anchovy is the primary food source for the endangered California least terns. The fish play a critical role for these birds as they are fed whole anchovies from the time they are born and continue to rely on them throughout adulthood.
“San Diego Audubon, working alongside Audubon California and Sea and Sage Audubon, have been working to advocate for what we call ecosystem-based management of Northern anchovy,” says Flaherty. She says current management practices for forage fish like anchovies don’t necessarily consider the actual stock size of the fish. “So, if we're taking just as much out during years of low productivity as we are during years of high productivity, we're ultimately driving down the population size of that stock,” Flaherty says.
According to Flaherty, climate change is one of the biggest factors affecting availability of the fish for birds like the terns. She says warming ocean temperatures can potentially drive the fish deeper in the water column to get cooler. This makes it harder for diving birds like the terns to reach them. On top of that, populations of the fish have had struggles as well. “[T]here actually was a really intense decline in Northern anchovy from about 2009 until 2016, I believe, where the population declined very dramatically.”
It is important for the survival of the California least tern that regulatory agencies take a closer look at more science-based management practices. Thanks to advocates like Audubon and concerned members of congress, a new bill called the Forage Fish Conservation Act (H.R. 2236) was recently introduced in an attempt to gain better protection for these vitally important species. The bill is currently making its way through congress and has been referred to the Subcommittee on Water, Oceans, and Wildlife by the House Committee on Natural Resources for review.