Sometimes good things come in small packages, and sometimes small things come well packaged.

Fishermen who catch forage fish like menhaden typically don't see themselves as fishing for human consumption, says Andrew Jackson of the International Fish Meal and Fish Oil Organization, one of the panelists who participated in the Seafood Summit's forage fish debate. Saving Seafood photoAnd so it was that a conference session on small fish, for which I had no particular expectations, turned out to be a one of the jewels of the three-day Seafood Summit in New Orleans (Earlier this week I wrote about conferences held on Day 1 and Day 2.)

I believe it's permissible to say "small fish" when speaking of forage fish, but I'm not sure. "There's no distinct, clear definition" for forage fish, said Dr. Konstantine Rountos, a marine ecologist and conservation scientist who studies the effects of human impacts on coastal ecosystems. Rountos said forage fish species share a "critical" role in the ecosystem transferring energy from plankton to upper trophic species.

Rountos was part of a three-member panel charged with "debating" the guiding principles for forage fish management.

The nonetheless rancor-free discussion brought to lively light the particular issues that attend forage fisheries and was a reminder that in an ever-more-populous world, "how we use" will be no less of a consideration than "how much we use."

Rountos, who advocated for the integrity of the ecosystem, was joined by Andrew Jackson, technical director of the International Fishmeal and Fish Oil Organization, and chef Barton Seaver, head of the Healthy and Sustainable Food Program at the Harvard School of Public Health.

Jackson, who, it should be noted, on Monday received a Seafood Champion Leadership Award from SeaWeb, made the case that vast amounts of forage fish are necessary to produce the food we eat – meat as well as seafood. If I understood him correctly (and if I didn't it's on me), 5 million tons of fish meal are the "foundation" of 35 million tons of aquaculture production, 150 million tons of pork production and 110 million tons of poultry production. (Pigs, for example, get 5 percent fishmeal for eight to 10 weeks in their weaning diets.)

And he noted that while fish meal production has come down in recent years, the tonnage of production it accounts for has more than doubled. By the same token, the price has increased by a factor of four, from $500 per ton to $2,000 per ton.

Seaver spoke of forage fish as "part and parcel of our cultural fabric," but noted that forage fishermen typically do not view themselves as fishing for human consumption. "We are looking at a systemic use issue," he said. In Seaver's view it might be wise to "catch less at greater value for greater purpose."

Jackson wasn't sure menhaden, for example, represented a greater purpose. "You'll struggle to get people to eat canned menhaden," he said.

Jackson says fish oil has eclipsed fishmeal in value and will eventually drive the forage fish industry. Barring innovation, he's probably right. Fish oil, which contains DHA and EPA, the long-chain marine omega-3 fatty acids, must be added to the diets of farmed salmon.

"If salmon [production] wants to double," Seaver said, "what are they going to do but let the EPA and DHA come down?"

On this note Rountos, the conservationist, seemed to share Seaver's "greater purpose" perspective. Don't manage for abundance, he said, "Manage for maximum energy content."

"We shouldn't think of forage fish as salvation for a growing population."

A collection of stories from guest authors.

Join the Conversation