They’re known by names like greeneyes, pearlsides and halfbeaks, and they’re not marbles nor birds nor precious stones.
They’re fish – more specifically, forage fish, little guys that the big boys like tuna, marlins and whales gorge on out in the ocean.
You can just call them bait.
On Monday, a regional fisheries panel took a historic step to protect them – not just for their own good but for the good of the food chain in which they’re a vital link.
In a hotel conference room overlooking the ocean, the Mid-Atlantic Fishery Management Council adopted an amendment to safeguard more than 50 species of forage critters.
It’s the first East Coast panel and only the second of eight U.S. regional ocean councils to decide that creatures like sand lances, horned lanternfish and warty bobtail squids deserve a protection plan. The council that oversees the waters off California, Oregon and Washington paved the way with a similar action last year.
Monday’s decision was “a huge leap forward in fishery management,” said Joseph Gordon, who helps oversee ocean-related issues for The Pew Charitable Trusts.
“These little fish are the unsung heroes of the ocean,” Gordon said. “They’re what feeds everything, from seabirds to seals to whales to sharks. They’re the lifeblood of our Atlantic Ocean.”
Now, commercial fishermen in federal waters from New York to North Carolina can’t start targeting dozens of these lower-rung species in the ocean food frenzy without scientific evidence that it wouldn’t harm the larger ecosystem.
Rick Robins, the mid-Atlantic council’s chairman, said the panel is trying to get ahead of fishing demands.
“Too often we’ve had fisheries that developed relatively quickly in the absence of any science and the absence of an adequate management plan, and those fisheries had to be rebuilt as a consequence,” Robins said.
He knows from firsthand experience. The Suffolk resident is in the seafood processing business and was at the forefront of an explosion in the harvesting of a small shark known as the spiny dogfish back in the 1990s. The species was decimated by overfishing before regulators could develop a long-term protection plan.
Unlike dogfish, not many of the creatures on the list approved Monday are eaten much by humans.
But some could be, and others might become targets for processors of fish oil or fish meal. Already, a fish called menhaden is harvested in huge numbers for such products. That species and some other forage fishes already have management plans. Because of that, they weren’t included in Monday’s action, which applies to what’s known as “unmanaged species.”
The list of the newly protected – not just fish, but squids, krill and other creatures – was whittled down from more than 270 candidates.
What’s left reads like a fantasia of the scary, strange and stupendous – despite their relatively small size.