On Saturday the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to increase long-term commercial Pacific sardine catch levels, despite clear evidence of population collapse and of key sardine predators not getting enough to eat. Oceana is appalled by the council’s irresponsible decision to change its harvest policy to allow for more aggressive harvest levels. The changes raise the annual maximum harvest rate by 33% and will mean that 74% of the time catch levels will be greater than those set under current rules.
“The council’s action is an affront to common sense and responsible fishery management,” said Oceana’s California Campaign Director, Dr. Geoff Shester. “Going forward we will use all available options to protect the few remaining sardines left and the fisheries and wildlife that depend on them.”
The decision to increase the maximum harvest “fraction” rate from 15% of sardine biomass to 20%, which equates to a 33% increase in fishing harvest, occurred despite clear warning signs that sardine management must be more precautionary, not less. The latest assessment of Pacific sardines released in March 2014 shows that the species has declined by 74% in the last seven years, it is now at its lowest biomass in 20 years, and there are no signs of recovery. During this decline, U.S. fishing continued at the maximum allowed fishing levels (15% fraction). What is more, new findings by NOAA scientists find that the fishery has been exceeding the intended target fishing levels since 1993 due to a failure of U.S. management to account for sardine harvest by Mexico and Canada targeting the same sardine population.
The collapsing sardine population combined with continued low levels of other forage fish like Northern anchovy is having visible consequences on ocean wildlife. California brown pelicans are experiencing severe range-wide nesting failures and the unusual mortality event of thousands of young sea lions in 2013 was linked by scientists to a lack of available prey. Both species depend heavily on sardines and anchovies in their diets.
“The decision by the council to establish a more aggressive sardine harvest policy is a blow to long-term sustainable fishery management” said Ben Enticknap, Oceana’s Pacific Project Manager and Senior Scientist. “We are deeply concerned by the lack of consideration for how this action will affect our ocean ecosystem.”
The northern Pacific sardine population ranges from Vancouver Island, British Columbia to northern Baja California, Mexico. This small fish is a key food source for Chinook salmon, bluefin tuna, brown pelicans, dolphins, and large whales to name a few. The declining sardine population will have significant negative impacts on the health of the marine ecosystem, associated wildlife tourism revenue, and coastal economies. The commercial sardine fishery landed nearly 140 million pounds of sardine off the U.S. West Coast in 2013, valued at $14.5 million (USD). While some sardines are sold for human consumption, most are sold as bait to foreign tuna longline vessels and as aquaculture feed.
The council’s analysis indicated that its action would result in higher catches 74% of the time and lower catches 13% of the time, relative to the current management regime. The Council’s recommendation now goes to the National Marine Fisheries Service, the agency responsible for implementing federal fishery regulations.