SANTA CRUZ - Who cares about fish that no one seems to care about? Everybody, it seems.
In a San Mateo hotel ballroom Saturday, a group of scientists, fishermen and environmentalists will convene to debate whether to regulate several species of fish for which there is no market, but which could see increased demand from aquaculture and are increasingly seen as critical to the ocean's ecosystem.
Called forage fish and living near the bottom of the food chain, the lowly species play a crucial role in converting ocean plankton into protein, which is then snapped up by bigger fish such as salmon and tuna.
Some forage fish such as anchovies and sardines, intertwined with Monterey Bay marine history, already are subject to rules aimed at sustaining the fishery. What's on deck Saturday is the regulation of smelt, sand lance, saury and other West Coast species for which no fishery exists, but which environmentalists worry could be snapped up to feed the international aquaculture industry.
"The main concern is we're currently going through an unprecedented explosion in aquaculture right now," said Goeff Shester, California program director for Monterey-based Oceana. "It's not a question of if, but when, these fisheries are going to become economically viable."
Many forage fish already are packaged as fish meal for aquaculture and shipped around the globe, helping raise farmed salmon, tuna and other fish that wind up on dinner
Some environmentalists see Saturday's meeting of the Pacific Fishery Management Council as a landmark in fishery policy - traditionally, regulators have stepped in when limits are needed to maintain a commercially popular fishery, not before.
Thousands of comments have poured in urging the Council to protect those species. There is a general willingness to do that though the sides diverge on how, with environmentalists wanting unfished species included in a West Coast management plan that would take into account their impact on the marine ecosystem.
"What we're advocating and what make sense is, let's put these into a fishery management plan," said Paul Shively, campaign manager for the Oregon-based Pew Environmental Group. "Suspend any new fisheries unless and until we can show that they can be fished at a sustainable level."
Opponents say that isn't needed, and that future fisheries can be debated when and if they arise. Some suspect environmentalists of using the issue to score a win on a broader debate about how best to manage fisheries, with environmentalists seeking a more holistic approach, rather than species-by-species.
For the California Wetfish Producers Association - which represents sardine and other fisheries that traditionally package fish on the boat, or "wet" - the concerns expressed by many environmentalists are based on a worldview of problems facing forage fish.
That doesn't reflect the local reality, executive director Diane Pleschner-Steele said. She pointed out that just 2 percent of California's forage pool is caught.
"I think the core issue is, 'Is there a danger of gross overfishing of any of these stocks?'" Pleschner-Steele said. "The answer is no."
Follow Sentinel reporter Jason Hoppin on Twitter: @scnewsdude
©2012 the Santa Cruz Sentinel (Scotts Valley, Calif.)
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