Opinion: To save Great Lakes birds, we must help forage fisheries

Don Burlett
A seagull takes flight in high winds and blowing snow as a massive winter storm begins to bear down on the region on January 4, 2018 in Hull, Massachusetts. The "bomb cyclone" was expected to dump heavy snows in New England as the storm system moved up the U.S. east coast.

Spring is here. This is one of the most exciting times of year for birders like myself, because millions of birds will begin their long migrations north. Some, like Caspian terns and ospreys, will come to Michigan to start families. Others, like Bonaparte’s gulls and parasitic jaegers, will stop here to rest and eat before continuing their long journeys to the Arctic. These species are an important part of our state’s vast and beautiful wildlife. 

In order for these special seabirds to make it here in the first place, however, they must have abundant ocean fish in their marine habitat. During a large part of the year, seabirds live in our oceans and primarily eat forage fish like herrings and anchovies. However, across the globe many forage fish populations are declining due to ocean warming and overfishing. This has been devastating for seabirds, whose populations have declined by 70 percent since 1950. Extinction is a very real possibility for seabirds if we do not do something about it now.

Earlier this month, Congresswoman Debbie Dingell introduced the Forage Fish Conservation Act, legislation that will help save these magnificent seabirds by ensuring that we adequately protect forage fish from overfishing so that the birds, wildlife, people and economies that depend on them can continue to thrive.

Recognizing the growing demand on the declining population of these vital fish, the bill proposes to better monitor and manage them by expanding the Magnuson-Stevens Act, our country’s only federal fisheries management law. The goal is to give these fish the opportunity to rebound and become more stable, much like the Magnuson-Stevens Act has successfully done for many larger fish populations.

These tiny creatures aren’t just bird food. Forage fish are a primary food source for larger game fish, so they also support various industries and jobs across the U.S. Without these forage fish, recreational fishing for large game fish would cease to exist as well as the related industries (fishing boat manufacturers, tackle and bait shops, etc.) that add $115 billion to the economy every year.

That’s bad news for Great Lakes anglers and local coastal economies. In 2011, more than 533,000 anglers from our region traveled to coastal locations in the U.S. and spent $61 billion. 

I would like to thank Congresswoman Dingell for her leadership in addressing this pressing problem for our ocean ecosystem and all the amazing seabird species that depend on it. She recognizes why it is important to conserve forage fish and how they are critical to protecting Michigan’s natural heritage. 

Don Burlett is president of the Oakland Audubon Society and an avid birder for more than 60 years.