The Pacific Fishery Management Council voted Sunday to set the 2013 catch level for the U.S. West Coast Pacific sardine fishery at 66,495 metric tons. They took this action after reviewing a new scientific assessment showing this sardine population dropped 33% from the previous year and has been in continuous decline over the past six years, while recruitment is the lowest it has been in the last two decades. While catch levels will be lower in 2013 than 2012, the fishery council ignored increasing catch rates by Canada and Mexico; ignored warnings from scientists that the stock is collapsing; and failed to account for the importance of sardines as prey for whales, seabirds and other fish like salmon and tuna.
“They rubber stamped the 2013 catch levels based on a formula they know is flawed,” said Geoff Shester, California Program Director for Oceana. “It is frankly unbelievable, that the Council recognizes its current management is outdated and needs to be revised, yet year after year they continue to set quotas that are driving the population to collapse.”
A study published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the Pacific sardine population is collapsing. The scientists, including authors from the National Marine Fisheries Service, said that managers may be making the same mistakes all over again that led to the major population crash in the late 1940s that was made famous by Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. The scientists found a “critical” threshold in the population level, below which it is at risk of severe collapse. The stock assessment reviewed by the council yesterday shows the sardine population has now dropped below that threshold.
“It is high time for the National Marine Fisheries Service to change the way Pacific sardine fisheries are managed,” said Ben Enticknap, Pacific Project Manager for Oceana. “They have the science and the technology to do it right, but they refuse to consider new options.”
Pacific sardine are a critical food source for innumerable marine species including fish that support other recreationally and commercially important fisheries. These small fish also support one of the top three west coast fisheries by volume. In 2011 west coast sardine landings were worth over $9.7 million, yet their value left in the water may be much more. Most sardines caught off the west coast are exported as aquaculture feeds or bait.
Shester explains, “The current catch levels are set without considering how much needs to be left in the ocean to support a healthy food web, and without considering other recreationally and commercially important fish species that need to eat sardine to thrive. Ultimately, this hurts not only the sardine stock, but coastal communities and ocean wildlife.”
For the previous five years, the Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee and other advisors have recommend an overhaul of the formula used to determine annual catch levels to bring it up to speed with the best available science. One example of the glaring flaws in the formula is that U.S. catch levels are supposed to be reduced based on an estimate of Mexico and Canadian fisheries catch, which both come from the same sardine stock. Despite clear evidence from Canadian catch data and managers, the Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service continue to use the one estimate that they know is incorrect: zero. As such, U.S. fisheries continue to take more sardine, exacerbating the decline. Based on continuous criticism from the public and statements from scientists concerning this and other pieces of the aggressive harvest rate, the council is now planning on conducting a review of its harvest formula to correct some of the apparent flaws. Meanwhile, however, they are continuing to use a clearly flawed and overly aggressive strategy that inflates catch and places the long-term health of the California Current ecosystem and fisheries dependent upon sardines at risk.
The recommendations by the fishery council now go to the National Marine Fisheries Service and Secretary of Commerce for final approval.
Oceana is the largest international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans. Oceana wins policy victories for the oceans using science-based campaigns. Since 2001, we have protected over 1.2 million square miles of ocean and innumerable sea turtles, sharks, dolphins and other sea creatures. More than 550,000 supporters have already joined Oceana. Global in scope, Oceana has offices in North, South and Central America and Europe. To learn more, please visit www.oceana.org.