A recent report from a fisheries group has been making waves in the omega-3s sector. The report issues a blanket call for the worldwide harvest of forage fish to be reduced by half. These little fish supply the vast majority of the omega-3 ingredients on the market.

The report, called “Little Fish Big Impact,” was issued by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force. The group is chaired by Professor Ellen Pikitch of the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University, N.Y. The task force includes 15 academics from the United States, Australia, Canada and France.

“The approach we have been taking to these fish is pretty myopic,” Pikitch said. “We have been treating them as if they were like any other fish in the sea, and in fact they play a crucial and unique role in marine ecosystems.

“They are able to feed on plankton, which few fish can do for their entire lives. They transfer energy from the bottom of the food web all the way up to the top. They also play a really important filtering role.”

Companies that supply omega-3 ingredients from forage fish are fond of mentioning the benefits of sourcing ingredients from this category of marine life. These fish (lump krill in here) are short-lived and reproduce readily. They’re also cleaner because they're low on the food chain with less risk of bioaccumulation of toxins in their flesh. And finally, omega-3 suppliers can forgo targeting predator species like tuna or cod which naturally are fewer and take much longer to grow to adult size.

“All else being equal that’s a good thing to do,” Pikitch said. “But you’ve got to look at the big picture. The big picture is you still can’t take too many.”

Omega-3 suppliers call out problems in research

Adam Ismail, executive director of the Global Organization for EPA and DHA Omega-3, noted that the report looked at more than 40 forage fish fisheries around the world, but only three of those are involved in the production of omega-3s—the Peruvian anchovy fishery, the harvest of menhaden in Chesapeake Bay and the harvest of krill in Antarctica.

“What’s interesting is that they didn’t weigh the fisheries by their volumes. They weighted each fishery equal and that’s how they get to the general conclusion that you need to reduce by half the amount of fish being captured in these forage fisheries,” Ismail said.

“But Peruvian anchovies is by far the biggest forage fish fishery in the world,” he said. “And they didn’t identify a lot of issues there except that there are some bird populations that are stable now but they would like to see recoveries in them over time.”

Ismail said the issue with avian predator species has already been recognized by fishery managers in Peru, and the bird population has been monitored for a long time. 

The report did contain some good recommendations, Ismail said, such as identifying overall biomass targets for individual fisheries. But he said the information presented did not warrant 50 percent catch reductions.