Forage Fish

forage fish
© Michel Gunter WWF Canon
WWF is working with the forage fish sector, fisheries management authorities and other NGO´s to make forage fisheries sustainable.

About the species

Forage fish - also known as 'low trophic level' fish - are typical referred to as small fish that play a hugely significant role as the basis of the marine food chain and ecosystem.

They include fishes of the family Clupeidae (herrings, sardines, sprats...), anchovies and krill (Euphausia superba) and which are preyed upon by larger predators such as whales, tuna, sharks, swordfish, and seabirds.

Forage fish form large schools, often becoming immense shoals moving along coastlines and migrate across open oceans - an excellent source of food for the great marine predators. 

Antarctic krill, for example, is a small crustacean of great significance to the entire Antarctic food web. While generally not used for human consumption, krill are being caught at an increasing rate to be processed into feed for aquaculture and high value oils for nutritional supplements.

Facts and Figures

  • Seven of the top ten fisheries target forage fish
  • 24% of the total world catch in 2005 was forage fish: herring, sardines and anchovies (FAO 2005)
  • 2.5 million tons of the annual forage catch is turned into pet food (Turchini and De Silva 2008) 

The forage fish market

Food for species and humans
Large-scale industrial vessels fish forage fish species (especially anchovy and krill) for the production of fish meal or fish oil, and to a much lesser extent for human consumption.

About 80% of forage fish is caught and sold on the market as animal food and 90% processed into fishmeal and fish oil.  In 2007, of the 140 million tonnes of seafood fisheries, 19% were destined for non-food products. The fish meal and fish oil is used to manufacture animal feed, and is often used in the aquaculture sector. 

What is the problem with forage fish?

Take away forage fish and you pull the rug out from underneath the marine food web
Forage fisheries play a critical role in the marine food web. Today, many of the worlds great predator fisheries such as tuna are at the brink of collapse. As a compensation, the fishing industry is removing huge amounts of forage fish from the oceans with big purse seine vessels equipped with high-technology such as sonars or using spotting planes. Forage fish are very vulnerable to modern fishing equipment. They swim near the surface, in large compact schools, turning them into an easy catch.

Fisheries scientists are expressing concern that this will result in further collapses of predator fish (like the tuna) that depend on them. Consumption of forage fish by seabirds and marine mammals is not likely to be onerous to fisheries overall. 
On the other hand, aquaculture continues to increase its demand for fish meal and fish oil. One of the reasons why aquaculture is not yet considered the solution to overfishing is because many fisheries industries depend on catching fish to feed fish.
Pack ice and icebergs.  Scotia Sea near South Orkneys.  Antarctica / ©: Sylvia Rubli / WWF Canon
© Sylvia Rubli / WWF Canon
Antarctic krill is significant to the Antarctic food web. While generally not used for human consumption, krill are being caught to be processed into feed for aquaculture and high value oils for nutritional supplements.

What WWF is doing

 WWF is working with the forage fish sector and management authorities to implement best practices in forage fisheries, advocate for the application of a traceablility system (eg. catch documentation schemes), and encourage industries to commit themselves to source 100% from  MSC certified fisheries.

We also advise the aquaculture businesses to source the fish meal and fish oil in their feed from MSC certified forage fisheries - through supporting the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC). 

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