Environment & Science

Population crash means sardine fishing likely to be off limits next season

Susan Valot/KPCC

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The Pacific sardine fishery is likely to be closed to direct fishing next season, because the population of small fish has declined below federally mandated limits.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council is meeting on Sunday to decide policy for the sardine fishery. It is expected to accept population estimates that would lead to closing the fishery for the 2015-2016 season.

If the National Marine Fisheries Service acts on the council’s recommendation, it would be the first time sardine fishing has been banned since federal management of the fishery began in 2000.

It would not be the first time, however, that the fishery has been closed due to low numbers. The state closed the fishery after the population crashed in the 1950s. Sardine numbers took four decades to recover.

Many say that a similar decline is currently underway. Some estimates of the biomass of the fish show the population has declined by as much as 90 percent since a peak in recent years.

Graph of sardine decline

The fishery is widely expected to be closed for the upcoming season, which normally begins on July 1. However, environmental groups have called for an immediate close to the current season.

An official with the Fisheries Service said that any action would await the council’s final recommendations.

“Currently the agency isn’t considering closing the existing fishing season. We’ll take recommendations from the council, and we’ll continue to look at the information that’s being reviewed and presented here at the council meeting to make an official determination whether or not there is a need,” said Josh Lindsay, a policy analyst with the National Marine Fisheries Service. “As of right now, based on what we know, we have not determined that there’s a need to.”

Lindsay said the sardine fishery's value typically ranges between $10-20 million. The money generated increases once exports of the popular fish are factored in. 

Criticism

Environmental advocates have criticized the Fisheries Service for allowing sardine fishing to continue despite recent declines in the population.

“[Sardines] go through natural cycles of booms and busts. The reason why fishing has such an impact is that we keep fishing at high rates as if they’re booming during the time that they’re declining,” said Geoff Shester, California campaign director for Oceana.

Shester said the Fisheries Service’s management has exacerbated the decline of the sardines.

“There’s been a systemic management failure from the underlying science all the way up to the decision-making process of the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service that’s resulted in a terrible mistake at the worst possible time for this stock,” said Shester.

Josh Lindsay said that overfishing has not occurred and that the Fisheries Service’s response to recent population declines has been appropriate.

“As the biomass has declined, we’ve reduced fishing, and we’ll likely close fishing this year,” Lindsay said. “The framework and management in place is doing what it’s supposed to.”

The current low levels of sardines have had wide ranging consequences in the food chain. High numbers of starving sea lion pups and failed nestings of brown pelicans are believed to be related to the crash.

Though the sardine biomass assessment falls below the federal cutoff threshold, it remains above the official definition of an overfished population. That middle ground allows for incidental catch of sardines in other fisheries, such as anchovies and squid.

Shester said he hopes that the council will recommend strict limitations on sardine bycatch.

“When the stock is in this dire of a condition, every single ton of sardines removed makes a huge difference — not only on what the stock is now and how much food sea lions, pelicans and other animals have — but also decades from now, in terms of prospects of this stock ever being able to recover from the severe collapse that we’ve just experienced,” he said.