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Federal Bill Will Protect the Tiny Ocean Fish that Great Lakes Birds Need to Survive Migration

The Forage Fish Conservation Act will maintain a healthy forage fish population for the benefit of birds and local economies.

(October 29, 2021) – Yesterday, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell (D-MI-12) reintroduced the Forage Fish Conservation Act, which will help protect forage fish — the small but important schooling fish that serve as a critical food source to vulnerable seabirds during their difficult and often-dangerous migration journeys. 

“This fall, seabirds like the Black Tern are taking flight from the Great Lakes marshes where they built their summer homes, to travel thousands of miles over the Atlantic Ocean and Gulf of Mexico towards their winter homes. But they can only make this strenuous migration journey if there are abundant ocean fish for them to eat along the way,” said Michelle Parker, Vice President and Executive Director of Audubon Great Lakes. “This bill will protect seabirds’ primary food source, to help safeguard them from the dramatic population declines we’ve seen in recent decades. We are grateful to Congresswoman Dingell for her conservation leadership, which recognizes the benefits that forage fish provide to wildlife and the local economies that depend on them to thrive.”

Forage fish, including dozens of species of herring, anchovy, squid, and some small crustaceans, serve as the primary food source for many bird species that migrate to and from the Great Lakes each year. Forage fish are not yet included in federal fisheries management, leaving them vulnerable to overfishing throughout the country. Introduced alongside Rep. Brian Mast (R-FL-18), the Forage Fish Conservation Act of 2021 will amend the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, the primary law that governs ocean fish management in U.S. federal waters, to recognize the important role that forage fish play in the ecosystem for seabirds, larger fish and other marine life.

Seabirds are in crisis. Threats like overfishing and climate change have caused seabird populations around the world to decline by 70 percent since 1950. Audubon Great Lakes is monitoring populations of Black Tern, which are seabirds that nest in Michigan and across the Great Lakes each summer. Breeding colonies of Black Terns have become increasingly rare in U.S. Great Lakes coastal wetlands, with an almost 90-percent decline in the number of active colony sites since 1991. This has resulted in the inclusion of the Black Tern on several Department of Natural Resource species lists across the Great Lakes region, which outline species that are endangered, threatened, or in need of conservation. 

The bill will provide a common definition for forage fish across the country for the first time. It will also establish protections for forage fish species that are not yet fished, and account for the needs of seabirds and other predators when setting catch limits for forage fish species that are currently being fished.

When properly managed forage fish support various industries and jobs in across America. As a primary food source for larger game fish and other predators, the protection of forage fish supports recreational fishing and related industries that add $68 billion to the economy, the seafood industry that provides $144 billion to the economy, and wildlife watchers who together spend over $122 billion on recreation every year.

“Forage fish are the beating heart of the ocean,” said Anna Weinstein, Director of Marine Conservation for the National Audubon Society. “This legislation will ensure there are plenty of these little fish in the sea, for seabirds, whales, and larger fish. Its passage is essential for protecting our coastal ecosystem and economy.”

Rep. Dingell previously introduced this bill in the House of Representatives during the last congressional session. The House bill serves as a companion to the Senate version introduced by Sens. Richard Blumenthal (D-CT) and Roy Blunt (R-MO) in April 2021.

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About Audubon Great Lakes
Audubon Great Lakes is a regional office of Audubon, learn more at gl.audubon.org and follow us on FacebookTwitter and Instagram

The National Audubon Society protects birds and the places they need, today and tomorrow. Audubon works throughout the Americas using science, advocacy, education, and on-the-ground conservation. State programs, nature centers, chapters, and partners give Audubon an unparalleled wingspan that reaches millions of people each year to inform, inspire, and unite diverse

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