Sardines, herring and other small fish species are the foundation of the marine food web — they're essential food for birds, marine mammals and other fish. But globally, demand for these so-called forage species has exploded, with many going to feed the livestock and fish farming industries.

Some of these species are already heavily fished, and it will take time for them to recover. But other forage species have not yet been commercially targeted. And this week, the U.S. government passed measures — backed by environmentalists as well as fishermen — to protect these critical fish and invertebrate species in waters off the U.S. West Coast before they're overfished.

A rule passed Monday by the National Marine Fisheries Service makes it illegal for commercial fishermen to develop new fisheries for hundreds of forage species unless scientists have first determined that targeting them will have no negative impacts on the marine ecosystem, existing fisheries and fishing communities.

Forage species include such creatures as lanternfishes, Pacific saury, silversides, eulachon, surf smelt and neon flying squid. Some of these species have hardly been fished at all. They may live in deep water far from shore and are relatively absent from public awareness.

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