A Jan. 24 story in the Reporter asked: "Why are so many Keys pelicans starving?" Some fishermen and a bird rehabilitation expert theorized that a lack of bait fish could be a cause. A new report shows they could be right -- and we need to offer a different form of help.
Small fish such as mullet and menhaden feed pelicans as well as marine animals ranging from sharks to dolphins and whales. Fishermen have long recognized the importance of bait fish to their favorite catches, including tarpon, snook, grouper and sea bass. Three recent scientific studies confirm that fewer forage fish could exacerbate declines of fish-eating birds like pelicans.
Yet few regulations directly limit the amount of bait fish, also known as forage fish, that can be hauled from Florida's coastal waters each year. In 2012, seven main types of forage species accounted for nearly 20 percent of all the commercial catch.
The state's wildlife managers must act now to protect these species, which serve a critical role in ocean food webs, according to a November report from the Pew Charitable Trusts and Audubon Florida. "Fins and Feathers: Why Little Fish Are a Big Deal to Florida's Coastal Waterbirds" underscores the need to expand Florida's fishing rules beyond the traditional approach of setting limits that maximize the catch of each species. Rather, fishing rules for forage fish should explicitly ensure that the dietary needs of coastal birds, fish and other marine wildlife are met.
Guaranteeing abundant forage fish is critical to preventing repeat episodes of emaciated pelicans in the Florida Keys and safeguarding our state's reputation as the fishing capital of the world.