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Many seabird species depend on forage fish like sardines and Pacific Saury for food.

Rhinoceros Auklet - Andrew Reding
Rhinoceros Auklet - Andrew Reding

Seabirds are highly adapted to life on the ocean, and include seafaring bird families like puffins, auks, terns, gulls, albatrosses and guillemots. They are known for their large nesting colonies and incredible migrations, the most dramatic example of which is the Arctic Tern’s biannual journey from pole to pole.

As a top predator in the ocean food web, seabirds are a valuable indicator of marine health, but nearly half of all seabird species are known or suspected to be experiencing population declines. These declines are caused by a number of factors, but seabird populations are most threatened by invasive predators that wipe out nesting colonies and the overfishing of seabirds’ main food sources, particularly of “forage fish” species.

These small, schooling fish are the critical link in the productive marine food web that supports top predators like seabirds and marine mammals. There are hundreds of forage fish species, including sardines, anchovies and herring, as well as lesser known species like the Pacific Saury. The Audubon Society of Portland is working to prevent the depletion of this vital resource so seabirds can thrive.

One Third for the Birds

Growing global demand for inexpensive protein drives the call to open new fisheries on forage fish, posing a threat to the wildlife that feeds on these species. By weight, forage fish now account for nearly 40 percent of all fish caught worldwide. Only ten percent of this catch is for human consumption – the rest goes to feed for livestock, pellets for farmed fish, and fertilizer.

The growing harvest of forage fish comes at the expense of everything higher on the food chain. Essential prey for bigger fish like tuna and salmon, marine mammals, and seabirds, forage fish are the “unsung heroes” of the California Current Ecosystem. Driven by the upwelling of nutrient-rich sediments along the entire west coast of North America, the California Current Ecosystem is one of the most productive marine ecosystems in the world.

A recent meta-analysis across seven ocean ecosystems confirmed that seabird breeding success is strongly linked to food abundance provided by healthy stocks of forage fish. When fisheries removed more than two-thirds of the maximum prey biomass observed in long-term studies of forage fish, seabird colonies’ productivity faltered and even failed due to reduced forage fish abundance - these fish are a key food for growing chicks. Our goal: protect one third of forage fish for the birds.

Audubon’s Work to Protect Forage Fish and Ways to Help

The Audubon Society of Portland’s work to protect forage fish for seabirds is split between efforts to continue improving the management of forage fish in federal waters – an issue where we need your help – and pushing for Oregon to adopt a forage fish management plan. See our recent successes in our efforts to protect forage fish in federal waters, and learn more about forage fish in Oregon’s nearshore waters.

Management of fisheries is broken down by state and federal jurisdictions. State waters extend 3 nautical miles from shore while federal waters extend from 3 to 200 nautical miles. The Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife manages fisheries in nearshore state waters while the Pacific Fishery Management Council is the key coordinating entity that regulates federal water fisheries. The Council, with input from the conservation community, has made good progress in increasing forage fish protections, but there is currently no management plan for forage fish in Oregon’s nearshore waters.

Related Audubon Society of Portland programs and priorities: Ten Mile Creek Sanctuary, Marbled Murreletsocean protection.

More Information

For more information about the role of forage fish in the marine food web, view our forage fish FAQs, read a summary of a report from the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force, and watch the following video from PEW Charitable Trusts and This American Land.

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