Questions surface over whether fishery is near collapse
A controversial decision by the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) would set catch limits during the initial phase of the 2014 Pacific sardine season well below traditional recommendations.
The dramatic 7-6 vote by council members during their November 3, 2013 session in Costa Mesa, California sets the interim sardine quota lower than the specified harvest formula for the first time since the federal government took over management of the fishery 13 years ago.
The Pacific Coast sardine fishery occurs in phases, with the first running from January 1 to June 30, primarily off the California coast. Fishermen can land 35 percent of overall harvest guidelines during that time – the quota set by the management council. The fishery moves to Oregon and Washington during the second phase from July 1 to September 14, when 40 percent of the quota is available. The remaining 25 percent of the harvest limit is available during the season's final phase (September 15 to December 31), which takes place off the northern coasts of Washington and British Columbia.
A "harvest control rule" sets the fishery's harvest at a certain percentage of the overall stock. If or when the sardine population drops below a particular level, fishing stops. Current harvest rates fluctuate from 15 to 25 percent of the overall estimated population, depending on stock size.
But conservation advocates called this management approach inadequate in asking the management council members for a complete shutdown of the fishery now through mid-2014, or at the very least, otherwise drastically curtail harvest. Led by Oceana – which bills itself as "the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world's oceans," claiming to have protected "more than 1.2 million square miles of ocean" since 2001 – conservation advocates requested even tighter fishing restrictions in a May 29, 2013 letter to Will Stelle, NOAA Fisheries West Coast Region administrator, and PFMC Chair Dan Wolford.
Ben Enticknap, Oceana's Pacific campaign manager, said it's clear the Pacific sardine population "is in the midst of a crash." He called the PFMC decision "a step in the right direction," but noted that it's not enough. "There shouldn't be any fishing on sardines right now," he added.
In fact, the letter to PFMC declared that Pacific sardines are "in a state of collapse" and "recent exploitation rates have resulted in overfishing."
"We are now seeing direct impacts of this sardine collapse on the water," the letter stated, noting that current management measures are not using the best available science. "Unfortunately, the Pacific sardine fishery has not been managed for long-term sustainability in a manner that prevents overfishing, achieves optimum yield, and protects the health of our ocean ecosystem."
To minimize what they consider a crisis, Oceana leaders asked for a closure of the sardine fishery for the remainder of 2013 and the first half of 2014, pending requested changes in fishery management and a new assessment showing that the sardine population has recovered.
Among other things, the letter asked fishery managers to "prevent overfishing from occurring again in 2013 and correct current fundamental flaws in the Pacific sardine control rule" by taking immediate action "to either close the Pacific sardine fishery due to recently identified overfishing, the current sardine decline and low abundance," or – at minimum – "correct the 2013 overfishing limit, allowable biological catch and harvest guidelines based on biomass estimates at the start of the fishing/calendar year."
Oceana leaders wanted the council to "consider, evaluate and adopt" the group's proposed sardine harvest control rule for 2014 management and beyond.
Geoff Shester, Oceana's California program director, commended the PFMC's action as "beginning to heed the warning signs of a crashing sardine stock," but also considered it as possibly "too little, too late." He and others want the council to take additional steps to correct what they consider "the underlying problem with sardine management."
As proof, conservation advocates pointed to recent starvation deaths of yearling California sea lions due to lack of sardines as prey, along with what they said are "remarkably low landings" in the California sardine fishery so far this year. They also pointed to a recent scientific analysis indicating ocean temperatures and conditions "unfavorable for sardine productivity."
Earlier in 2013, NOAA Fisheries managers declared an "unusual mortality event" for yearling sea lions in Southern California, caused, they noted, by lack of available food. Researchers say Pacific sardines (along with other so-called forage fish – the little ones like anchovies, herring and menhaden) are definitely a key food source for sea lions, salmon, tuna, brown pelicans, dolphins, whales and other marine species.
The quota share off California's coast during the first six months of the season was 23,000 tons, but fishermen hauled in just 4,400 tons.
And a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences in February 2012 suggested the sardine fishery is taking too many fish, and claimed that a recovery anytime soon is unlikely.
Researchers Juan P. Zwolinski and David A. Demer stated that colder ocean temperatures off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California have triggered a natural decline in sardine populations – one similar to the decline in the 1950s that decimated the sardine fishery north of Monterey Bay, California. Zwolinski is a researcher at the University of California-Santa Cruz affiliated with the NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SFSC). Demer is a scientist at the center.
Other NOAA Fisheries researchers challenged those findings. They and fishing industry representatives said they see signs of the fishery entering a cycle of natural decline, but management precautions already in place would prevent the sort of overfishing common in past years.
Kristen Koch, the SFSC's deputy director, told PFMC members that sardine populations fluctuate widely and there is no collapse imminent.
The PFMC had already cut the 2013 sardine quota by more than 40 percent to 66,495 metric tons divided among the three phases – 23,000, 26,598 and 19,897 tons, respectively. For 2014, managers wanted to further reduce limits by more than half. But council member Marci Yaremko, representing the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), asked fellow council members to take more precautionary measures, dropping the quota to less than a third of 2013 levels. She said nothing in the current sardine stock assessment shows the biomass is stable; instead, everything in it "suggests a decline."
Conservation advocates agreed.
"As evidence validating long-running concerns about the fate of this small, but critically important fish, a new assessment of the Pacific sardine population shows that the species is at its lowest biomass in 20 years, coast-wide overfishing occurred in 2012, and that the population is projected to continue this downward trend," stated an Oceana press release announcing the PFMC's decision.
Released October 28, the assessment noted that the sardine population declined by almost 979,000 tons since 2007, while the fishery removed 1,035,000 tons during the same time. It also featured 2012 catch levels that exceeded "maximum sustainable yield," indicating that overfishing occurred, the Oceana release noted. According to the assessment prepared by NOAA Fisheries for the council, the 378,000 metric tons of sardines expected at the beginning of the 2014 season is a mere 28 percent of the peak level of 1.4 million tons reached in 2006. Harvests have declined steadily since 2008, and researchers and fishery managers expect another steep drop in 2014.
Under the current sardine management plan, another 60 percent decline – dropping to 150 metric tons - would require a shutdown of sardine fishing off the Pacific Coast.
Council member David Crabbe, who represents California's fishing industry, presented an amendment outlining a higher catch quota based solely on the stock assessment and current management guidelines. Council members rejected Crabbe's suggestion and - much to the chagrin of sardine fishermen - narrowly agreed with conservation advocates' concerns, setting catch limits for the first six months of 2014 at 6,946 tons.
They said they tried to strike a balance between conservation and socioeconomics, considering industry needs along with concerns about sardine stocks.
Fishery advocates called the decision a triumph of politics over policy that failed to consider the precautionary methods used under current sardine management. Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association (CWPA) - which represents sardine, anchovy, squid and mackerel fishermen and processors – said the decision would essentially penalize California's historic wetfish industry, and it disregarded the scientific recommendations from the management team.
Pleschner-Steele serves as vice chair of the committee that advises PFMC about sardines and other coastal pelagic species.
These so-called "wetfish" include the market squid, anchovies and sardines that represent 80 percent of all California fishing industry landings. Also known as "forage fish," these small species are critical to the ocean's ecology and their management is escalating tensions between fishermen and environmental advocates.
While CWPA leaders say sardines are cautiously managed and natural explanations exist for declining stocks, environmental advocates like Oceana's Shester say that attitude is what led to the previous collapse of the sardine fishery, when fishermen were allowed to fish "until they couldn't find any more fish." They say the current situation, especially off the California coast, mirrors those times, when sardines disappeared and didn't return for almost 30 years.
This time, they add, recovery could take much longer.
Fishery managers say comparing current management to the good old days is disingenuous. "Today's precautionary management framework cannot be compared to the historic fishery, which harvested as much as 50 percent of the standing stock," said Pleschner-Steele.
The PFMC is one of eight regional fishery management councils established by the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. It features 14 voting representatives from Oregon, Washington, California and Idaho with jurisdiction over the 317,690 square-mile exclusive economic zone off the Washington, Oregon and California coasts.
Among others, the council manages fisheries for coastal pelagic species, which live in the water column, not on the sea floor.
The council's Coastal Pelagic Species (pelagic species live in the water column, not on the sea floor) fishery management plan outlines the framework for northern anchovy, market squid, Pacific sardine, Pacific mackerel and jack mackerel. Fishery managers say Pacific sardine landings and markets are substantial enough to warrant annual assessment of stock status and fishery management.
When the Pacific sardine population is large, fishery managers say it is abundant from the tip of Baja, California to southeastern Alaska and throughout the Gulf of California. At times, sardines were the most abundant fish species in the California current that extends offshore from Oregon to Baja, California.
The Pacific sardine fishery boomed from 1915 to 1951, with as much as 93 percent of the entire Pacific Coast catch landed in California.
At the height of the sardine fishery in 1945, Monterey, California was home to 19 canneries and 20 reduction plants. The fishing fleet featured more than 100 boats. During that time, Monterey earned the title of "Sardine Capital of the World," and ranked third among the world's major fishing ports behind Stavanger, Norway and Hull, England.
Scientists say sardines almost completely disappeared from the northern California region in the 1950s – a deep decline caused by a natural cycle (populations, they note, typically drop when ocean temperatures get colder) enhanced by overfishing. Sardines reappeared in the 1980s, leading to a rebound that restarted the fishery during the 1990s. Scientists declared the sardine resource fully recovered in 1999, estimating the spawning biomass at more than 1 million metric tons.
As part of the so-called "wetfish" industry – designated as such because the fishermen can move them "wet from the sea" to the can with minimal processing - sardines, along with mackerel, anchovy, market squid and coastal tuna, have made up much of California's commercial catch for the past century.
Wetfish remain a vital and lucrative component in the state's fisheries.
Established in 2004, the CWPA – which counts most wetfish catchers and processors among its members - supports research "to conserve and sustain wetfish resources, promote sustainable fisheries and foster cooperative research."
Leaders say California's current wetfish industry has direct ties to the traditional sardine industry, with most fishermen and processors boasting a long personal and family history in the fishery. The association fosters social and economic relationships that allow many of them "to withstand the challenges of variable and uncertain environmental, regulatory and economic conditions."
Despite the recovery, the sardine fishery operates under strict harvest guidelines.
Only 65 boats are licensed to fish sardines, mackerel and anchovy under a federal limited entry program approved in 1999. A few more actively fish for squid under a restricted access program initiated by state officials in 2004 that cut the squid fleet from 164 vessels to 77 transferable permits.
"Many boats have permits to fish both squid and wetfish, and many have fished for decades, handed down to new generations of fishermen from fathers and grandfathers who pioneered this industry," the CWPA website states.
Harvest guidelines deduct 150,000 metric tons from the biomass estimate for forage. They also require a reduction in allowable catch, based on sea surface temperature. Harvest rate drops to five percent when the three-year mean average temperature drops to between 60 and 62 degrees. Scientific studies indicate that sardine abundance fluctuates widely during periods averaging about 60 years. Estimated population declines last an average of 36 years, while recoveries last an average of 30 years.
The most recent recovery traces to the late 1970s.
Another recent scientific analysis by an international task force - including Oregon State University's Selina Heppell, Marc Mangel form the University of California – Santa Cruz, and P. Dee Boersma and Tim Essington from the University of Washington – also recommends cutting down on the global harvests of sardines and other forage fish that are critical prey for larger species. The ultimate conclusion by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force deems these little fish "twice as valuable in the water as in a net."
Globally, forage fish generate $5.6 billion if caught, but researchers say they're worth at least $11.3 billion if managed properly, because they provide the food source for so many other vital species.
The task force featured 13 researchers from Canada, Australia, the United Kingdom, France and the United States who have studied forage fish and their predators, including larger fish (salmon, tuna, cod), seabirds and penguins and marine mammals (dolphins and whales).
"Forage fish are essential components of marine ecosystems," says Heppell, a fisheries ecologist and one of the authors of the Lenfest report "Little Fish, Big Impact: Managing a Critical Link in Ocean food Webs."
The researchers determined that small schooling fish play a vital role in ocean food webs by consuming phytoplankton and then becoming prey themselves. Predators switch from one forage fish species to another, depending on their abundance. Harvest of forage fish has jumped, based on demand - canned sardines, anchovies on pizza and nutritional supplements for humans, but mostly for fish meal and fish oil to feed farmed fish, pigs and chickens.
Heppell, who is also on the PFMC science team, says commercial and recreational fishing groups are concerned about the forage fish because their livelihoods depend on those little fish.
The task force recommends ecosystem-based management of forage fish to avoid situations like the eulachon smelt, recently placed on the endangered species list. Because forage fish populations go through major fluctuations, Heppell says conservative management is vital. Status and relative importance of each species can be hard to evaluate, though, partly because of those fluctuations and partly because many species migrate long distances. Relative health of populations and differences in fisheries management also play roles.
Pacific sardine landings in Washington, Oregon and California are valued at $9 million to $15 million a year. Most are exported to Asia, primarily for canning or use as tuna bait.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife marine resources officials said the effect of the initial reduction in sardine harvest should prove minimal in Oregon and Washington, where sardine fishing doesn't start until July. It could, however, take a toll on those in California and who travel to California to fish for sardines, depending on whether or not those fishermen can catch enough anchovies, mackerel and squid to make up the difference.
PFMC is scheduled to review the matter again in April 2014, when new sardine stock assessment and population estimates are available.