Human demands for food and fish meal are often in direct competition with forage needs of marine mammals, birds and piscivorous harvested fish. Here, two well-developed ecosystem models for the California Current on the West Coast of the USA were used to test the impacts on other parts of the ecosystem of harvesting euphausiids, forage fish, mackerel and mesopelagic fish such as myctophids. Depleting individual forage groups to levels that led to maximum sustainable yield of those groups may have both positive and negative effects on other species in the California Current. The most common impacts were on predators of forage groups, some of which showed declines of >20% under the scenarios that involved depletion of forage groups to 40% of unfished levels. Depletion of euphausiids and forage fish, which each comprise >10% of system biomass, had the largest impact on other species. Depleting euphausiids to 40% of unfished levels altered the abundance of 13–30% of the other functional groups by >20%; while depleting forage fish to 40% altered the abundance of 20–50% of the other functional groups by >20%. There are clear trade-offs between the harvest of forage groups and the ability of the California Current to sustain other trophic levels. Though higher trophic level species, such as groundfish, are often managed on the basis of reference points that can reduce biomass to below half of unfished levels, this level of forage species removal is likely to impact the abundance of other target species, protected species and the structure of the ecosystem.