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In Tomorrow’s Vote, Pacific Fishery Management Council Must Act to Close Sardine Fishery

Failure to intervene will have lasting impact on marine ecosystem and coastal economy

Pacific sardines are in the midst of a crash, the likes of which hasn’t been seen since the 1950s. When asked where the sardines had gone in the years following World War II, scientist Ed Ricketts famously answered, "They're in cans.” As a result, the once bustling canneries of Monterey were abandoned. Today, the Pacific sardine is once again imperiled, and fishery managers must act swiftly to stop current overfishing of this species.

sardinesPhoto by Adam Fagen The Pacific Fishery Management Council will vote tomorrow on whether to close the current sardine fishery early.

The collapse of Monterey's sardine fishery in the 1950s was due to the natural boom and bust cycle of this forage fish, exacerbated by a largely unregulated fishery removing sardines at an unsustainable rate during a natural bust. While the sardines eventually came back, they never rebounded to their historic highs. Scientists estimate the sardine population was over 3.5 million tons in the 1930s. Now the population is hovering at less than 3 percent of that historic peak and little of the catch is actually feeding people. Instead, most of the sardine catch is used as fishmeal and shipped abroad to feed larger farmed fish, like penned bluefin tuna. The next generation is now watching as history repeats itself, the ocean again being emptied of this critically important small fish. 

Three years ago, federal fishery managers failed to heed the warning signs of a second sardine fishery collapse. In 2012, top sardine scientists clearly cautioned of a severe collapse unless precautionary measures were taken to avoid it. While the Pacific Fishery Management Council did reduce the catch levels of sardine as the stock declined, they did not act fast enough.

The Council’s own scientists reported last week that, while there has been a natural decline of the sardine population in recent years likely due to ocean conditions, today’s sardine population would have been four times higher than current levels in the absence of fishing. It is clear that fishing pressure has a direct impact on abundance of this forage fish. Without precautionary measures to account for natural variability in this inherently boom and bust stock, disaster is inevitable.

With the sardine population in collapse, fishing vessels are turning to anchovy to fill the void.   But Northern anchovies, another critical forage fish, are at their lowest numbers in decades according to recent egg and larval surveys by the federal government. The National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), the federal agency that implements the Council’s recommendations, hasn't completed a full assessment of the anchovy population since 1995. The NMFS blindly allows 25,000 metric tons of anchovy to be pulled up in nets every year, despite having no clear understanding of the health or abundance of the population.

Forage species, including the tiny sardine and anchovy, form the base of the ocean food web. With their decline, we are now witnessing the suffering of marine wildlife, starving and unable to reproduce. Marine mammal rescue centers don’t have the space to accommodate and rehabilitate all the California sea lion pups washing ashore dehydrated and emaciated. These quintessential coastal species are literally starving due to low sardine and anchovy numbers, which are a critical nutrient source for nursing mother sea lions and newly weaned pups foraging on their own. California brown pelicans, which were delisted from the Endangered Species Act only six years ago, are abandoning their nests in search of food. As a result, brown pelican reproductive success has been in decline since 2007, culminating in major nesting failures in 2012-2014.

Many other species rely on sardines and anchovy as a key dietary component. Magnificent humpback whales forage on shoals of these shiny, silvery fish as do commercially and recreationally important Chinook salmon and albacore tuna. It may only be a matter of time before a nutrient void manifests itself in other marine animals.

With the problem glaring in our faces, what’s the solution?

The Pacific Fishery Management Council took action on Sunday at their meeting in Rohnert Park, California to close the directed sardine fishery next season, which usually commences July 1. With the sardine population estimated to be at just 96,688 metric tons, this was a necessary and responsible step. But, in the face of a modern day ecosystem crisis, it won’t be enough.

The Council must take emergency action to close the sardine fishery early, suspending fishing for the remainder of the current season, which is scheduled to end June 30. They have the authority to do so and will be voting on whether to make this determination on Wednesday. With approximately 2,000 tons of unmet catch, boats are still on the water trying to scoop up the remaining fish. An emergency closure is necessary not only for the benefit of marine wildlife, but also for the future of continued fishing opportunities. The harder a population is fished, the longer it can take to rebound.

Moving forward, it is essential that the formula for determining catch levels be revamped. The calculations must take into account how many forage fish need to be left in the ocean to support a healthy marine food web and the broader coastal economy.

When it comes to a sardine fishery crash, hopefully there won’t be a next time. When nature starts to speak, we should listen. 

Ashley Blacow
Ashley Blacow is the Pacific Policy and Communications Manager for Oceana, an international marine conservation group.

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