CA sardine fishing ban: Did regulators wait too long?

The federal government’s emergency moratorium on sardine fishing off the California and Pacific Northeast coast took effect July 1, in a major blow to commercial fishing operations, which directly and indirectly sustain thousands of middle-class jobs. The Pacific Fishery Management Council ordered the ban in April after research showed a decline of more than 90 percent in sardine stock, which is defined as the total weight of sardines at least 1 year old in Pacific fishing areas adjacent to the U.S. mainland. The stock was estimated to be 1.4 million tons in 2007 but is just 100,000 currently.

Cannery-RowMindful of history, commercial fishing officials offered few objections. The plunge in sardine stock has been so drastic that there are fears that overfishing could lead to a lengthy downturn in sardine fishing off the Golden State, as happened in the 1950s, prompting the closing of Monterey’s famous Cannery Row, the setting for John Steinbeck’s 1945 novel with the same name. The industry didn’t recover for nearly 40 years.

Writing for the Environment 360 website affiliated with Yale University, veteran science journalist Elizabeth Grossman says there’s reason to worry that just such a scenario is likely to play out again:

Many fisheries experts, including some scientists working for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), think the fishery closure has come too late.


Sardine populations rise and fall naturally, cycling as ocean temperatures shift. But, says Tim Essington, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences, “Fishing makes the troughs deeper.” In a paper published in March, Essington showed that overfishing worsens the magnitude and frequency of the cyclical declines of sardines and other forage fish, such as anchovies. 


“The reason I wrote the paper is that I was tired of being in rooms where people say, ‘It doesn’t matter what we do in fishing — it’s all about the environment,’” says Essington. “But we’ve failed to respond quickly and that’s pushed these fish to lower levels.”

Scientists’ 2012 warning was ignored

There is a perception in some California business circles that environmental regulators are too eager to take big steps to prevent risks that are only theoretical or potentially only minor. But when it comes to sardines and overfishing, federal officials didn’t take dramatic action until this spring — even though two respected scientists working for the federal government warned of the coming sardine wipeout three years ago.

sardinesIn 2012, two federal fisheries biologists — David Demer, senior scientist at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and NOAA fisheries research biologist Juan Zwolinski — warned that fishing pressure on Pacific sardines was unsustainable given that cool ocean conditions were also depressing sardine numbers. They said it was “alarming” that the fishing industry was once again responding to a declining sardine population with “progressively higher exploitation rates targeting the oldest, largest, and most fecund fish.” The pair predicted an “imminent collapse” of sardine stocks.

That’s also from Grossman’s reporting. She notes federal officials decision to disregard Demer’s and Zwolinski’s warming has has produced second-guessing:

Some fisheries biologists believe that in the face of evidence that Pacific sardine populations were steadily declining since 2007, a fisheries ban should have been imposed earlier. Despite the decline in sardine numbers, for example, fisheries managers allowed 100,000 tons of sardines to be caught off the U.S. West Coast in 2012. 


“It stands to reason that if you lay fishing on top of various vulnerabilities to changes in conditions, you make things more vulnerable,” says Carl Safina, an ocean ecologist and president of the conservation group the Safina Center. “It takes out a certain amount of resilience.”

Sardine wipeout linked to malnourished sea lions

Further underscoring the slowness of federal regulators to act is that concerns about the sardine wipeout having a dire effect on the ocean ecosystem were already widespread in the winter of 2013-14 — long before the moratorium was ordered. This is from a story in the Jan. 5, 2014, Los Angeles Times:

In recent years scientists have gained a deeper understanding of sardines’ value as “forage fish,” small but nutrition-packed species such as herring and market squid that form the core of the ocean food web, funneling energy upward by eating tiny plankton and being preyed on by big fish, seabirds, seals and whales.


Now, they say, there is evidence some ocean predators are starving without sardines. Scarcity of prey is the leading theory behind the 1,600 malnourished sea lion pups that washed up along beaches from Santa Barbara to San Diego in early 2013, said Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service.


Melin’s research indicates that nursing sea lion mothers could not find fatty sardines, so they fed on less nutritious market squid, rockfish and hake and produced less milk for their young in 2012. The following year their pups showed up on the coast in overwhelming numbers, stranded and emaciated.


“We are likely to see more local events like this if sardines disappear or redistribute along the coast and into deeper water,” said Selina Heppell, a fisheries ecologist at Oregon State University.


The Pew Charitable Trusts issued a report offering similar conclusions in December 2013.

Chris Reed

Chris Reed

Chris Reed is a regular contributor to Cal Watchdog. Reed is an editorial writer for U-T San Diego. Before joining the U-T in July 2005, he was the opinion-page columns editor and wrote the featured weekly Unspin column for The Orange County Register. Reed was on the national board of the Association of Opinion Page Editors from 2003-2005. From 2000 to 2005, Reed made more than 100 appearances as a featured news analyst on Los Angeles-area National Public Radio affiliate KPCC-FM. From 1990 to 1998, Reed was an editor, metro columnist and film critic at the Inland Valley Daily Bulletin in Ontario. Reed has a political science degree from the University of Hawaii (Hilo campus), where he edited the student newspaper, the Vulcan News, his senior year. He is on Twitter: @chrisreed99.

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