An Upstream Journey, Dispatch #4: Steelhead and Pacific Forage Fish

Written by: Paul Moinester


Wild steelhead populations cannot weather commercial-fishing assault on their open-ocean forage fish.
Photo courtesy Bryan Huskey

[Editor's Note: Paul Moinester has embarked on a six-month, 20,000-mile adventure to exploring the upstream battle to protect wild fish and their habitat. (Check out his introductory post here.) He will be posting dispatches on the Fly Fishing blog throughout his journey.]

When it comes to catching steelhead, I don’t know much. What I know is that a steely resolve as tough as the fish you’re pursuing is paramount. And a willingness to stand in the pouring rain, waste deep in frigid water, swinging flies for hours and days on end without so much as a bite to serve as motivation for the next cast is required. Either that or you better have some serious fish mojo – something I have proven time and again to have in very short supply.

Try as I might to exhibit this steadfast determination, four days of futilely swinging flies and drifting beads to nonexistent fish was all I could bear before I needed a break. It didn’t help that the previous month and a half of fishing had been almost equally unproductive. So I left the Oregon coast and headed back to Portland to spend the day meeting with people leading the charge to protect the fish I couldn’t catch.


Bob Rees unloads his drift boat in the pouring rain on the Wilson River in Oregon.
Photo by Paul Moinester

On a dreary and overcast April afternoon in Portland, I met Paul Shively and Tara Gallagher at a bar on the north side of town for a few local beers and a conversation about the Pacific Fish Conservation Campaign. I had met Paul and Tara the previous week and was eager to learn more about their campaign.

Having spent my formative fly fishing days in the Mid-Atlantic, where striper fishing reigns supreme, I’m acutely aware of the critical role forage fish such as Atlantic menhaden play. Dubbed “the most important fish in the sea,” menhaden and other small, schooling forage fish are a lynchpin in the ocean food chain and serve as a vital food source for everything from striped bass and salmon to whales and seabirds. But substantial commercial fishing pressure on the East Coast has decimated the menhaden population, which is threatening the health and viability of the striped bass fishery.

The same nutritional attributes that make menhaden and other forage fish a highly pursued dinner in the sea have also made these oily, protein-rich fish a valuable commodity on land. Despite their diminutive size, the tonnage of menhaden caught on the East Coast exceeds that of any other fish. These fish are not destined for your dinner table, not directly at least. The bony fish are ground up and used as feed for farm-raised fish and agricultural animals, fertilizer, and pet food.


A tuna hunts sardines, a forage fish that needs to be well managed to protect the ecosystem.
Photo courtesy Ingo Arndt/Minden Pictures and the Pew Charitable Trusts

With the meteoric rise in the global demand for farm-raised fish, chicken, pork, and beef, forage-fish populations across the planet are experiencing dramatically increased pressure from commercial fishing operations. This trend is highly problematic considering that regulatory regimes throughout the world routinely fail to appropriately monitor and manage forage-fish populations. Combine this regulatory shortfall with the behavioral characteristics of forage fish that make them particularly susceptible to overfishing, and you have a lethal combination.

With menhaden and other forage fish populations across the globe in decline and on the brink of collapse, commercial fishing operations have their eye on the sardines, herring, anchovies, and other forage fish that inhabit the waters off the West Coast – an enormous and somewhat untapped resource. And that’s where the Pacific Fish Conservation Campaign comes into play. The campaign is entirely preventative. It’s an attempt to learn from our past mistakes and to properly manage a resource that is vital to the U.S. economy and iconic species such as salmon, steelhead, tuna, and humpback whales found up and down the West Coast.

The objective of the campaign is simple and reasonable. It’s not trying to ban commercial forage fishing operations. All the campaign is working to accomplish is to suspend the expansion of forage fishing until a regulatory regime is implemented that can properly manage and monitor this critical resource for the good of the ecosystem. It’s a pragmatic approach that takes into account the pivotal role tiny forage fish play in the health and vibrancy of the entire ocean.


The author’s first striper on the Potomac in Washington, DC.
Photo courtesy Paul Moinester

As the campaign likes to say “these little fish are a big deal.” And thanks to the campaign’s work, people are starting to take notice of these critical little fish. But there is still a long way to go before a sustainable management plan is implemented that will protect forage fish and ensure the Pacific Ocean ecosystem continues to thrive.

To learn more about the campaign and how you can get involved, please visit the Pacific Fish Conservation Campaign.

One thought on “An Upstream Journey, Dispatch #4: Steelhead and Pacific Forage Fish

  1. Pingback: An Upstream Journey, Dispatch #11: The Perfect Finale | Orvis News

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