Atlantic saury, pearlsides, sand lances—you’ve probably never tasted any of these fish (or heard of them). But they and other “forage” species play a vital role in our oceans—they’re food for the fish we eat. In fact, these lowly forage species are so essential to the health of marine ecosystems that some people are taking extra steps to protect them—especially as the global demand for seafood soars. Last week the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council, which oversees fishing in U.S. waters from New York State to North Carolina, decided to start managing more than 50 species of forage fish.

The council’s decision is a bit unusual—after all, none of the forage fish populations are in danger of collapse, and only one of the 50-plus species is harvested on a large scale in the mid-Atlantic today. In the region, people have mostly ignored these fish because they tend to be small, low-value and not very appetizing. But the council is trying to handle its fisheries more holistically because it has realized that putting controls on a single species at a time just will not work. “There's a move now to manage all fisheries as part of a bigger system,” says Steve Ross, a research professor at the University of North Carolina Wilmington who is one of the council’s scientific advisors. “When you manage one fish, you try to manage its whole environment—and that includes the food web.”

These small, nutrient-rich forage fish pump energy through the ecosystem in a way that no other marine animal can. They feed on the bottom of the food chain—on single-celled plankton, which larger fish cannot eat—and then they become prey for all sorts of upper-level predators like tuna, sea bass and halibut as well as seabirds and marine mammals. “I like to say that forage fish help turn sunlight into salmon,” explains Ellen Pikitch, a professor of marine biology at Stony Brook University. “They support so much of the ocean ecosystem.”

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