TAMPA —When the Asian market developed an insatiable taste for Florida's freshwater turtles, commercial harvesters swept across the state, shipping tons of the native reptiles across the ocean.
State officials in 2009 began scrambling to implement protections before global demand could wipe out the creatures.
Audubon Florida and the Pew Charitable Trusts want to head off a similar potential problem with small forage fish that are the major food source for many imperiled bird species, snook and tarpon.
They might be little fish, members of these environmental groups say, but they are a big deal to birds and other marine creatures, and they need protection.
“We need to get ahead of these issues, instead of waiting until there is a dire situation,” said Julie Wraithmell, director of Wildlife Conservation for Audubon Florida. “As some of these new forage fisheries develop, we need to look at how many fish we need to leave in the ocean so birds can continue to recover.”
Many of the coastal birds that depend on forage fish nest and live along the Tampa Bay coastline and on Pinellas County beaches, said Marianne Korosy, coordinator of Important Bird Areas for Audubon Florida.
“Reddish egrets and roseate spoonbills and Caspian, royal, sandwich, least and gull-billed terns, as well as black skimmers, are some of the most important birds in this, because forage fish are their primary food base,” Korosy said.
The birds nest in natural areas along the bay's rim — including the Alafia Bank — on bay islands, on gulf islands off north Pinellas and on Egmont Key.”
A report by Audubon and Pew outlines how, even with a statewide net ban in place, commercial fishermen harvested 9 million pounds of mullet in 2012 — mostly for their eggs, a delicacy in Asia.
The Florida Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, which oversees both the state's shorebirds and its fisheries, has drafted “action plans” for 60 bird species, 10 of which rely on forage fish such as greenbacks, shad, sardines and ballyhoo as the staple of their diets. Audubon and Pew are calling on the commission to consider those findings when setting rules for the fisheries, said Holly Binns, director of U.S. Oceans Southeast program for Pew.
“Rather than waiting until the market develops to increase pressure on these forage fish, it is better to take steps now to make sure they are appropriately regulated and protected,” Binns said.
Already, these little fish species are harvested for bait, food and commercial products, including fertilizer and fish meal. Few Florida state regulations limit the amount of fish such as sardines and herring that can be commercially harvested.
“We're the bird wonks, so we were responsible for the analysis on exactly what birds are eating,” Wraithmell said. “Coastal birds in Florida get a lot of conservation attention on habitat loss and disturbance, but it made us take a step back and look at what they depend upon for prey.”
For now, state officials are not considering rules for forage fish, also called bait fish or prey fish, said Amanda Nalley, spokeswoman for the Fish & Wildlife agency's saltwater fisheries arm.
“We are aware of the report. Certainly, these are the kinds of things that sometimes bring about action in the future,” Nalley said.
“Fisheries policy must consider the ecological and economic vitality that hinges on these smallest of fish,” Wraithmell said. “If you're a nesting bird, you may be able to fly to another location, but once you've got eggs and chicks, you need fish close by so you can feed yourself and the kids.”
“In a (bird) management plan it would be a recommendation to set these limits,” Wraithmell said. “By going at it from a fishery standpoint, we are asking the state to factor this in and consider it when setting limits on fisheries.”
“Nesting seabirds are declining in Florida,” Korosy said, “particularly least terns, and we need to know why. Food could certainly be one of the causes. This would be the type of project where we could cooperate” with the state on studying the issue more extensively, she said.