Pacific Sardine Population Remains Low, Says National Marine Fisheries
SEAFOODNEWS.COM [Monterey Herald] by Carly Mayberry – March 27, 2017
Monterey — A study released Friday by the National Marine Fisheries Service puts the northern Pacific sardine population off the West Coast at perilously low levels for the third straight year. The findings, which will be reviewed next month by The Pacific Fishery Management Council, while disheartening for both environmentalists and fishermen, are also disputed by some in the fishing industry who question the method by which these forage fish are counted.
“It’s a major blow to the industry here,” said Dr. Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California campaign director and senior scientist, noting that it’s when the stock falls below the threshold of 150,000 tons that it’s deemed necessary to close the fishery.
Shester has long maintained that overfishing on top of the natural decline of sardines after the 1950s is to blame.
“So this shows the stock has plummeted around 95 percent over the last 10 years and that overfishing contributed to that decline,” said Shester. “It made a natural decline even worse.”
More importantly, said Shester, is that because many forage fish are currently at a very low level, other animals that would feed off of them are suffering too. Sardines and other forage fish like anchovies and mackerel are the foundation of the marine food web.
He cited studies by both the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration that found thousands of California sea lions abandoned because their mothers had insufficient food for them and pelicans that have laid eggs that ultimately don’t survive.
“It started in 2013 and every year NOAA has declared an unusual mortality event,” said Shester.
“What basically happens is that you reduce the food so much that the ocean can no longer support the number of animals out there,” he said. Shester noted that the pelicans and sea lions are just the animals that are very visible but that there are many unseen animals that are affected too.
But Diane Pleschner-Steele, who is the executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association and represents the majority of boat fishermen and processors who harvest wetfish, said that there’s significant error in the way the sardines are counted and that current government surveys are not surveying adequately the fish that are in the near shore ocean.
The National Marine Fisheries Service is the federal agency deemed responsible for the stewardship of national marine resources.
“Their acoustic surveys don’t get in anywhere close to the near shore where there’s a ton of sardines so there’s a significant piece of the biomass being missed,” said Pleschner-Steele. The agency itself even acknowledges its deficits.
“They call this assessment the ‘least worst’ so what does that tell you,” she said.
She noted that fishermen in both California and the Pacific Northwest have been observing sardines, both small and large, since the summer of 2015. The northern Pacific fishery extends from Baja California up to Canada.
While Pleschner-Steele said the whole surveying system is going into a methods review next January, time is of the essence for the fishermen she represents. Currently, if the net of a boat draws up 50 percent or more sardines, the entire catch is just released.
“Closing the sardine fishery basically closes everything for us, except for squid,” said Pleschner-Steele. “We are seriously considering applying for disaster relief.”
But for Shester, the regulations may be a case of too little, too late.
“The concern is that once the population falls below some sort of critical level it has trouble coming back and replenishing itself,” said Shester. “We support sustainable fishing but whenever you have overfishing it’s bad for everyone.”