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TALLAHASSEE — Already pressured by a steady loss of habitat, many of Florida’s imperiled and iconic coastal waterbirds are vulnerable to declines in small fish that are necessary for their survival, according to a report by Audubon Florida and The Pew Charitable Trusts.


“Fins and Feathers: Why little fish are a big deal to Florida’s coastal waterbirds” examines the crucial link between birds and the diverse array of small fish that are a critical food source. Declines in the populations of these fish, known alternatively as forage fish, prey fish or baitfish, could threaten imperiled birds such as Brown Pelicans, Roseate Spoonbills, Black Skimmers and Reddish Egrets, according to the report.

“In Florida, our environment is directly linked to our quality of life and our economy,” said Julie Wraithmell, Audubon’s director of wildlife conservation. “This report shows how important baitfish are to Florida’s coastal birds, environment, communities and economy. Fisheries policy must consider the ecological and economic vitality that hinges on these smallest of fish.”

Few regulations limit the amount of forage fish such as sardines and herring that are hauled out of Florida’s coastal waters each year. Forage fish are used for bait, food and commercial products ranging from fertilizer to fish meal. Worldwide demand is growing. In 2012, seven main types of forage species, including sardines, scads, herrings, ballyhoo and mullet, accounted for 20 percent of all commercial catch off Florida. Commercial fishermen, for example, caught more than 9 million pounds of mullet that year, mostly for their eggs, which are sold around the world as a delicacy.

Fishery managers can help conserve Florida’s forage fish and its natural resources by accounting for the needs of predators such as seabirds when setting fishing rules in Florida’s coastal waters. Bird conservation efforts historically have focused on other threats such as habitat loss, with less emphasis on ensuring prey abundance and availability. With many birds already pressured by a steady loss of habitat, this report reveals a new and critical conservation gap at a time when leaders can act before it’s too late.

The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission has drafted species action plans for 60 bird species warranting protection. Among those species are 10 birds that rely on forage fish as part of their diet. Rules and permitting changes to protect these species will be completed in 2014; the plans and rules are slated for final adoption in Spring 2015.

The same state agency, which is meeting in Weston today and tomorrow, also has jurisdiction over fishing rules in nearshore waters extending up to 9 miles off the Gulf Coast and up to 3 miles off the Atlantic coast. Although the state has restricted the size and types of some fishing nets that typically snare small fish, a Tallahassee circuit judge ruled last month that the regulations are fundamentally unfair, ordering the state to stop enforcing them. Yet the restrictions—intended to implement a net ban approved by voters in 1994—will remain in effect while the state appeals the decision.

All of these state efforts to protect small fish are critical to coastal wildlife.

“Small, nutrient-rich fish are the main course for many birds, marine animals and larger fish such as tarpon, snook  and sharks,” said Holly Binns, who directs Pew’s Southeast ocean conservation work. “It only makes sense to protect the smallest link in the ocean food webs. Investing in protections for forage fish will reap dividends down the line for fishermen, coastal communities, tourists and everyone who enjoys Florida’s birds and environment.”

In light of the report’s analysis, Audubon Florida and Pew encourage the state to:

  • Account for the forage needs of coastal waterbirds before expanding current forage fisheries or allowing the development of new forage fisheries.
  • Ensure sufficient abundance, variety, and sizes of forage fish species to meet the needs of coastal waterbirds and other marine wildlife when setting management limits on forage fisheries.
  • Identify and map foraging areas for nesting coastal waterbirds and areas subject to forage fisheries; analyze potential overlap of these areas and activities; and consider conservation and management options to avoid or minimize potential conflicts.
  • Protect forage fish habitat such as mangrove and seagrasses, as well as water quantity and quality in the estuaries.

Coastal development in Florida directly harms seagrass beds, mangrove forests and salt marshes, all of which serve as critical nursery habitat for forage fish. Similarly, changes in the quantity, quality and timing of freshwater that flows into estuaries threaten to degrade and diminish the quality of these important places for fish. At the same time, habitat loss and coastal development also pose risks to many of Florida’s bird populations.

Yet these birds and fish are crucial to an environment that draws tourists from around the world. Florida’s 2,276 miles of coastline are an international destination for wildlife viewing.

Residents and visitors to Florida who watch birds, dolphins, marine turtles and other species had an economic impact of $4.9 billion in 2011 alone, according to the most recent estimate from the state wildlife commission. In addition, the commission found that nearly 1 in 5 Florida residents participate in some form of wildlife viewing. Between 2006 and 2011, the number of people who visited Florida to view wildlife increased 22 percent.

“Florida’s birds are a delight for tourists and residents, yet they need help,” Binns said. “The state should recognize the importance of conserving forage fish for the sake of birds as well as other important marine life.”

For additional information, including details on specific species, see the full report here.


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