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Environment & Science

Federal fishery management shifts, and are sardines sustainable?

Sardines in Redondo.
Sardines in Redondo.
Susan Valot/KPCC

A really amazing (and long!) story appeared yesterday in the Washington Post about federal fishery management. Juliet Eilperin reports that federal authorities have finalized 40 of 46 fishery management plans including catch limits for hundreds of fish stocks in U.S. waters. That’s a big deal because many fishermen’s groups consider catch limits a scourge, an unnecessary interference in their work, a restriction unjustified by science. 
Eilperin does a great job summarizing what the federal government knows: 

Because of budget limitations, NOAA conducts stock assessments of commercial species only every few years, using independent trawl surveys, official landing data, ecological data and interviews with operators, among other sources.
Its data on recreational fishing are even spottier. NOAA has created an expanded dockside survey and will use new methodology to analyze the results, but officials say they have not made wide use of this approach before this year. After an annual catch limit is set for a recreational fishery, managers can adopt several measures, such as limiting the season or the size of fish that can be taken, to prevent fishers from exceeding the overall threshold.

Her story cites some key examples, like cod, where the government was just a little bit off in what it knew, and had to correct itself. 

The new-touted policies are in place in waters under the jurisdiction of the Pacific Fishery Management Council too, from Alaska down to California. The PFMC watches salmon, halibut, highly migratory species like tuna and swordfish, rockfish and flatfish, and coastal pelagic fish (anchovies, sardines, mackerel, that live in the water column rather than along the bottom).   

Sardines have been making a news comeback in recent years, and a culinary one. (I think they can’t qualify for being trendy anymore, having been so in 2010.) They got touted as a sustainable sushi option. I think for a while there, everywhere I turned, Mary Sue Miliken and Susan Feniger were recommending a little oil, a little lemon, and grilling the silvery little guys. Then they got found by the teeming score in a massive fish kill

Last fall, environmental groups led by Oceana asked the PFMC to count sardines differently, and manage them differently, at an ecosystem level, taking into consideration interdependence among other species. Then they sued the Commerce Department (which oversees NOAA and NMFS) about it. Specifically, Oceana’s lawyers argue that sardine management is unlawful because the PFMC’s rule doesn’t account for ecological value, doesn’t make good criteria for when there’s a problem, and doesn’t use science well enough to set the limits.

As Earthjustice lawyer Andrea Treece put it, they believe that "[f]ishery managers must take into account not only what fish might be available for catch, but also how much to leave in the ocean for other species like seals, dolphins, whales, and salmon that rely on the smaller fish." Basically, they want humans to share. This is basically in line with ecosystem management, so I can almost hear some fishermen mocking it. And haven't other environmental groups been touting sardines as a sustainable local fishery? 

The point is, every council has its fish stock issues right now, and they ain't easy anywhere. Also I wonder if I've been eating too many sardines.