Scientific research on the vulnerabilities of forage fish was discussed at the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine today.

Dr Ellen Pikitch, professor and executive director of the Institute for Ocean Conservation Science at Stony Brook University in the US, outlined the key findings of its research, entitled ‘Little Fish, Big Impact’.

Dr Pikitch told the committee that forage fish are a crucial species in the food web. She explained that these are small, often schooling pelagic spices, migratory fish that swim in shoals, including sardines, anchovies, sand eels among others.

According to Dr Pikitch, 37 per cent of the world’s marine catch is forage fish and they are becoming increasingly exploited by humans for fish meal and fish oil. The vulnerability of forage fish to changes in the environment was also outlined to the committee. She cited previous instances were collapses have occurred such as in California and Japan. Dr Pikitch also stressed to the committee their research has found that an array of marine life have a significant dietary dependence on forage fish and are ecologically important.

The research showed that better fishing practices have a beneficial impact on fish stocks and reduces the risk of forage fishery collapse.

Committee chairman Andrew Doyle TD  described the research as the most comprehensive global analysis of forage fish species to date. “The report found that conventional management has led to worrying declines in this species, which form a critical link in the marine food chain,” he said.

He noted the recommendations of cutting catch rates in half in many eco-systems and doubling the minimum biomass of forage fish that must be left in the water. “The committee will be keen to assess any policy steps that may be required to safeguard the future sustainability of Ireland’s fishing grounds,” he added.

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