California Sea Lion Pup Starvation Sky Rockets | Oceana

California Sea Lion Pup Starvation Sky Rockets

Press Release Date: February 27, 2015

Location: Monterey, California


Anna Baxter | email:
Anna Baxter

Monterey, CA- Thousands of new born California sea lion pups are expected to starve to death this year due to a lack of forage fish. The Pacific sardine population – a key food source for sea lions – is at the lowest level in over fifteen years and there are no clear signs of recovery. In light of the ecosystem-wide impacts of declining forage fish populations, Oceana is continuing to call on federal fishery managers to make serious changes to conservation and management of these and other important forage species.

“Sea lions stranding on the beach are only the tip of the iceberg,” says Ben Enticknap, Pacific campaign manager and senior scientist with Oceana. “The impacts of declining forage fish populations will ripple throughout the California Current ecosystem for years to come.”

Scientists with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration have found that the key components of sea lion diet have either almost disappeared (anchovy) or they are rapidly declining (sardine) and that sea lion pups are starving due to a lack of high quality food (see: CalCOFI Conference, page 31).

“Any fishing on Pacific sardine right now is overfishing,” said Geoff Shester, Oceana California campaign director.

While forage fish populations like sardine are greatly influenced by ocean conditions, commercial fishing on a declining population increases the rate of the population decline.  According to the most recent federal stock assessment, the West Coast sardine fishery removed 715,000 metric tons (nearly 1.6 billion pounds) of sardines over the last seven years while the population declined by 1,050,000 metric tons (2.3 billion pounds). This excessive fishing during a naturally low productive period drives the population to a lower point than what would happen naturally without fishing and it increases the amount of time it will take for the forage fish population to recover. Further, when ocean conditions become productive for sardine again, the population is not likely to ever recover to historically high levels. 

While federal officials are quick to blame ocean conditions for the declines in prey, they have turned a blind eye to the effects of sardine fishing and even voted to increase harvest rates on sardines at their November 2014 meeting.

“Oceana has and is continuing to call on the National Marine Fisheries Service and Pacific Fishery Management Council to fix fundamental flaws in the management of West Coast sardine and anchovy fisheries,” said Shester.  “It is time managers leave more forage fish in the ocean where they can serve their important ecological role as forage for sea lions, whales, birds, and other commercially and recreationally important fishes.” 

For the past two years, Oceana has requested fishery managers immediately close the sardine fishery and establish a higher “cutoff” population size, such that the fishery can only resume once the stock has recovered to abundant, healthy levels.  Such measures likely would have averted or reduced the current ecological crisis caused by a lack of prey.  Oceana also filed litigation against the National Marine Fisheries Service in 2011 due to a failure to prevent overfishing or account for ecosystem needs; however that case is still in appeal.

Much of the sardine caught off the U.S. West Coast is exported as bait for Asian tuna longline fisheries or to feed penned bluefin tuna in Australia. A relatively small proportion goes to human consumption.

A scientific report by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force found that globally forage fish have a greater monetary value when left in the ocean as prey than in fishing nets.  The Task Force estimates that the supportive value of forage fish to the catch of other commercially important species is $11.3 billion, twice the value of directed commercial forage fish catch.

On Monday March 9, the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council will be taking final action on a proposal to prohibit directed fishing on seven forage species groups that are currently unfished and unmanaged off the U.S. West Coast (round and thread herring, Pacific sandlance, deep sea smelts and lanternfishes, Osmerid smelts, Silversides, Pacific saury, and many types of squids).  In early April the Council will set annual catch levels for the West Coast Pacific sardine fishery.  

“Protecting currently unfished forage fish is a precautionary action that will be a major step toward protecting forage species,” said Enticknap, “but action is needed to protect the actively targeted forage species like sardine and anchovy that sea lions and other ocean wildlife depend on.” 

More information on how the lack of sardines and anchovies is affecting sea lion populations is available at: