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I BELIEVE that forage fish species, such as menhaden, sardines, anchovies, herring, scad, ballyhoo, and pinfish are critically important to the health of Florida’s marine food webs.

I SUPPORT measures that will protect this important prey base for species such as snook, tarpon, redfish, spotted sea trout, sailfish, king mackerel, cobia, dolphinfish, coastal birds, and other marine species that support jobs, revenue, and recreational opportunities in Florida.

I URGE the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission to adopt new measures to help maintain and enhance Florida’s legacy as the Fishing Capital of the World.

These measures include:
  • Accounting for the dietary needs of snook, tarpon, redfish, spotted sea trout, sailfish, king mackerel, cobia, dolphinfish, and coastal birds and wildlife during the expansion of current forage fisheries or the development of new forage fisheries.
  • Ensure sufficient abundance, variety, and sizes of forage species to meet the food needs of predators and explicitly account for them when setting forage fishing rules.
  • Protect forage fish habitats—such as mangroves, sea grasses, estuaries, rivers, and bays—including their water quantity and quality.
Small Fish Fuel Florida’s Fisheries
See how pilchards turn sunshine into snook and why Forage Fish need protection in the Fishing Capital of the World.
Why do we need forage fish?
See how forage fish help make Florida the fishing capital of the world and how properly managing forage fish will ensure that Florida maintains its rich fishing legacy.
Help Protect Forage Fish Habitats
Take Action to ensure forage fish diversity and abundance can meet the needs of predators.
Small Fish Make Big News
Stay up to date on our forage fish campaign, coalition partners, and other related news.
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What are forage fish?

Forage fish are small to medium-sized schooling fishes that typically mature early and have short life spans. Sardines, anchovies, and menhaden are classic examples, but many other species like goggle eyes, mullet, pinfish, and ballyhoo also have similar life cycles.

Why do forage fish matter?

Forage fish represent the first vertebrate link in marine food webs. They feed predominantly on small plant and animal matter and, in turn, transfer this energy to higher trophic levels where they are subsequently preyed on by larger, predatory fish such as redfish, snook and sailfish. Therefore, fisheries managers need to determine how many forage fish can be harvested and how many need to be left in the ocean in order to properly fulfill their role as food for larger fish species and animals.

How are forage fish harvested?

Globally, forage fish account for nearly one-third of all marine fish that are harvested annually. The majority (90%) are processed for aquaculture, feed for poultry and livestock, and nutritional supplements for people. In Florida, forage fish constitute 20% of all commercial catches.

Meet some of Florida’s important forage fish species

Forage Fish - Scaled Sardine or Pilchard
Scaled sardine or pilchard (Harengula jaguana)

Most people in Florida refer to scaled sardines as pilchards. Pilchards are common inshore and nearshore along both coasts of Florida. They have a maximum size of approximately 15 cm, rarely live more than a year, and are often misidentified with their close relative, the false herring (Harengula clupeola). One study reported that pilchards are heavily preyed upon by king and spanish mackerels, little tunny, gag grouper, bluefish, crevalle jack, yellowfin tuna, and dolphin. Total statewide landings of scaled sardine in 2012 were 29,365 pounds. No formal stock assessment exists for this species.

Forage Fish - Atlantic Thread Herring
Atlantic thread herring (Opisthonema oglinum)

Thread herring are common in Florida and occur from the Gulf of Maine on the east coast throughout the Gulf of Mexico and the Caribbean southward to Brazil. They can be readily identified by their last dorsal fin ray, which is long and filamentous.Thread herring have a lifespan of at least three years and become reproductively mature at between 4.7 and 5.7 cm in fork length at roughly age one or two. Spawning takes place in nearshore waters from March through July. The 2013 landings for threadfin were 1.7 million pounds. No formal stock assessment exists for this species.

Forage Fish - Pinfish
Pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides)

This well-known species of forage fish is a ubiquitous resident of Florida’s extensive sea grass beds. Pinfish may live as long as seven years and a two year old fish averages five inches in length. They mature by age one or two when they are approximately 4.3 inches in length. Pinfish exhibit seasonal migrations where they move to offshore habitats during the fall, where they reside and spawn through the spring. They are an important prey item for many species of fish including redfish, seatrout, and even gag grouper during winter months. Pinfish feed on a variety of invertebrates but as they grow, the shape of their teeth change and their intestines increase in length as they graze on more plant material. The 2013 landings for pinfish were 45,852 pounds. No formal stock assessment exists for this species.

Forage Fish - Spanish Sardine
Spanish sardine (Sardinella aurita)

Spanish sardines can be encountered in Florida from the shoreline out to depths of 100 feet, but the highest concentrations occur at depths less than 65 feet. They exhibit diurnal vertical migrations where schools spend more time near the bottom during the day and utilize more of the water column at night. Spawning evidence is conflicting but is thought to occur year-round primarily along the Gulf coast shelf. After spawning, adults undertake migrations to nearshore feeding areas. Spanish sardines have a lifespan of only 4 years and can reach 7.5 inches in fork length. Females become sexually mature by their second year when they are approximately 5.3 inches in length. Females grow faster and larger than males. Key predators of Spanish sardines include grouper, bluefish, crevalle jack, spanish and king mackerel, and yellowfin tuna. Spanish sardines are harvested in Florida primarily with purse seine nets and 2012 landings were just under one million pounds.

Forage Fish - Striped Mullet
Striped mullet (Mugil cephalus)

Striped mullet are found worldwide and occur throughout Florida. They have somewhat of a catadromous lifecycle where they inhabit fresh and brackish water habitats but spawn in the sea. Unlike other forage fish, striped mullet are fairly long-lived and may reach nine to 13 years in age. They can grow to 20 inches in total length and become sexually mature at two to three years of age when they are approximately 11.5 inches in fork length. Spawning occurs in the outer continental shelf at depths over 5,000 feet during November through January. Striped mullet feed primarily on benthic microalgae, detritus, and sediment particles. They are important forage for common snook, spotted seatrout, red drum, southern flounder, and a variety of birds. Striped mullet have been regulated in Florida since 1989 and harvest was substantially reduced by the 1995 constitutional amendment that banned the use of entangling nets in Florida waters. The last stock assessment was conducted in 2008 and indicated that striped mullet are well-managed and are not overfished or experiencing overfishing. The next stock assessment is due at the end of 2014. Total landings in 2012 were 9,599,144.

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Forage fish help make Florida the Fishing Capital of the World

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation does an excellent job of managing Florida’s fisheries—especially its recreationally important species. Properly managing forage fish will ensure that Florida maintains its rich fishing legacy.

Florida is the undisputed Fishing Capital of the World1, and for good reason:

  • More International Game Fish Association records have come from Florida than any other U.S. state or country.2
  • Florida boasts over three million resident anglers and over one million non-resident anglers annually—more than any other state.
  • Recreational fishing in Florida has a total economic impact of over eight billion dollars annually—more than any other state.

Florida’s popular game fish rely heavily on forage fish

  • More than 40% of a snook’s diet consists of forage fish such as pinfish, anchovies, mullet and others. The prey heavily on 5-7 cm pinfish during the summer when their abundance is highest.
  • Redfish diet consists of approximately 34% forage fish.
  • Nearly 80% of juvenile tarpon diet is forage fish likes mosquito fish, mumichog and mollies.
  • Roughly 30% of what sailfish feed on are forage fish.
  • Gag grouper diet consists of roughly 45% pinfish in the winter and approximately 25% in the summer.

Why are forage fish vulnerable?

Forage fish experience natural variations in abundance due to environmental conditions. They also school together in large numbers, which make them easy to target and catch. These stressors make forage fish vulnerable to commercial over-exploitation and collapse. Forage fish collapses have been observed a number of times in recent history:

  • California sardine- 1950s
  • Peruvian anchoveta- 1970s
  • Namibian sardine- 1970s
  • Japanese sardine- 1990s

New data exists on the importance of forage fish to other predators3

  • Of all the ecosystems studied in the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force report, 75% had at least one predator whose diet consisted of 50% or more of forage fish. 29% of ecosystems studied had at least one predator whose diet consisted of 75% or more of forage fish.
  • Globally, the direct value of commercially harvested forage fish is approximately $5.6 billion dollars, annually. However, the supportive value of forage fish is $11.3 billion. In other words, forage fish have a higher economic value when left in the water as forage for larger predators. We have no idea how large the impact is on recreationally important species, especially in states like Florida that have extensive recreational fisheries.

1 Southwick Associates. Sportfishing in America: An Economic Force for Conservation. Produced for the American Sportfishing Association (ASA) under a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (USFWS) Sport Fish Restoration grant (F12AP00137, VA M-26-R) awarded by the Association of Fish and Wildlife Agencies (AFWA), 2012.

2 International Game Fish Association World Record Database, 2013.

3 Pikitch, E., Boersma, P.D., Boyd, I.L., Conover, D.O., Cury, P., Essington, T., Heppell, S.S., Houde, E.D., Mangel, M., Pauly, D., Plagányi, É., Sainsbury, K., and Steneck, R.S. 2012. Little Fish, Big Impact: Managing a Crucial Link in Ocean Food Webs. Lenfest Ocean Program. Washington, DC. 108 pp.

External Links

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What can be done to protect forage fish in Florida?

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) has a solid history of properly managing fisheries, especially recreationally important species. The FWC has the ability to take their progressive management approach and apply it to forage species. Specifically, FWC can:

  • Ensure sufficient abundance, variety, and sizes of forage species to meet the food needs of predators and explicitly account for them when setting forage fishing rules.
  • Require essential scientific data about forage species to guide expansion of existing forage fishing operations and development of new industries that target these species.
  • Protect forage fish habitats—such as mangroves, sea grasses, estuaries, rivers, and bays—including their water quantity and quality.

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Oregon Dept. of Fish and Wildlife - Marine Resources Program

In the last few years, there has been increasing recognition of the importance of forage fish and interest in ensuring that the forage base is managed and protected. There is universal agreement that to preserve ocean health, especially in the face of climate change, we must protect those species at the bottom of the food chain. The protection is critical as we develop new natural resource policies. Read More...

Bait at the Crossroads. To manage or not, and how? By Steve Kantner / photos by Pat Ford and Kantner

Salt water baitfish may be on the decline, with no end in sight. So says a growing number of coastal anglers, who view the shortage as affecting their interests—not the least of them, tourism. Whether the problem is real is up for debate. But if proven correct, it could have far-reaching consequences. Read More...

FLORIDA - Protecting the bait fish that fuel Florida's multi-million dollar fishing industry By Leah Bauwell, IGFA Conservation Coordinator

Forage fish are small to medium-sized, schoolig species (eg., anchovies, pinfish, herring, scad, menhanden, and sardines) that play a critical role in marine ecosystems by transferring energy to larger fish, marine mammals, and birds who prey on them. Read More...

IGFA stresses importance of bait fish management By Sue Cocking

Forage fish. That’s what scientists call the menhaden, sardines, anchovies, herring and others that larger fish, marine mammals, and seabirds eat. Worldwide, they contribute some $17 billion directly and indirectly as commercial catch. Read More...

U.S. Pacific Fishery council moves to protect forage fish By Shelby Sebens

A U.S. government agency that manages West Coast fisheries approved a prohibition on Tuesday on fishing seven categories of forage fish in a groundbreaking decision that signals a shift toward an ecosystem-based management. Read More...

Photographer and free diver Paul Dabill shares photos of underwater food webs

Click here to view stunning underwater slideshow show of ocean food webs or to read the feature on Paul and his views on forage fish habitats.

Florida Forage Fish Campaign to Hold the Marine Webs TogetherBy Christopher Balogh

Like everything in the Animal Kingdom, it's all connected. It can be like playing the game of Jenga, take out one piece and the tower could crumble. Forage fish is one of the bigger pieces in the game. Read More...

Talking With Noted Ocean Forecaster Mitch RofferBy Terry Gibson

Any good fisherman knows that if you find the bait, you’ll find the fish. This quest has pushed oceanographer Mitchell Roffer, Ph.D., to improve our understanding of what drives fish migrations and how to better forecast when and where anglers can target their favorite species. Read More...

Mid-Atlantic Council Initiates Action to Protect Unmanaged Forage Species By Terry Gibson

The Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council voted at its meeting last week to initiate an action that would protect unmanaged species of forage fish in the Mid-Atlantic. This action would place restrictions on the development or expansion of directed fisheries on these fish. Read More...

What About the Bait?By Capt. Danny Barrow

Rock star species? Iconic fish? All of the above? Praise the snook however you will. There’s no denying that the common snook (Centropomus undecimalis) is one of the most important species to attract anglers to the Fishing Capital of the World. Read More...

A Father’s Fishing LegacyBy Terry Gibson

During the peak of the 2013 fall mullet run, I took my father fishing on the Indian River Lagoon in eastern Central Florida for the last time. Three months earlier, the 68-year-old sportsman was diagnosed with terminal brain and lung cancer, though he never smoked and led a vigorous physical and intellectual existence. I am happy that he got to fish the mullet run that last time. He died a few days before Thanksgiving. Read More...

Pinfish Primer: A look at the important life history of a favorite meal for many predators.
By Terry Gibson

The summer before the Deepwater Horizon exploded, I went bottom fishing on a headboat out of Panama City, Florida. The boat's enormous livewell was filled with pinfish (Lagodon rhomboides), or "choffers," as they're called locally. These little fish - juveniles, 1 to 2 inches long - had captured the attention of some kids, age about 10 to early teens, aboard the boat. Fun with dip nets made the long run offshore pass quickly. I took advantage of a teachable moment to explain something really quite complex but easily imaginable in that setting. Read More...

Sardines, Anchovies and Mullet: Small in Size, Big Impact
By Jason Schratwieser

With the exception of live bait aficionados, most recreational anglers habitually focus on large predatory fish rather than small herbivorous ones. Be it salmon or sailfish, our brains naturally focus on fish like these more than they do on species like menhaden or mullet. But should we? Read More...

On Forage Fish... Managing the Unmanaged
By Capt. John Murray

Really, if you fish, at all, this is important… for a very basic reason — If there’s no bait, there’s no fishing. If you spend more than a few days on the water every year, you know this to be the case. Read More...

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The International Game Fish Association is a not-for-profit organization committed to the conservation of game fish and the promotion of responsible, ethical angling practices through science, education, rule making and record keeping.

The Florida Wildlife Federation is a private, statewide, non-profit citizens' conservation education organization composed of thousands of concerned Floridians and other citizens from all walks of life who have a common interest in preserving, managing, and improving Florida's fish, wildlife, soil, water, and plant life.

The Pew Charitable Trusts is driven by the power of knowledge to solve today's most challenging problems. Pew applies a rigorous, analytical approach to improve public policy, inform the public and invigorate civic life.

The Snook and Gamefish Foundation’s mission is to aid in the protection and preservation of current fish populations for future generations by facilitating coordination between anglers, researchers, and policy makers. We support unbiased and responsible fishery and marine regulations and and conservation, preservation, restoration, and enhancement of estuarine and coastal water habitats.