Pacific Coast Sardine Fishery Closed Until 2016

Pacific sardines | Photo: NOAA Fish Lab

Pacific sardine stocks off the coast of California are collapsing faster than anyone expected, and the agency responsible for regulating the West Coast's fisheries has banned commercial fishing of sardines for the next 15 months.

At a meeting Wednesday in Santa Rosa, the Pacific Fishery Management Council asked the National Marine Fisheries Service to close the current season for Pacific sardines as soon as possible, citing drastic declines in the fish's numbers. That came two days after the Council voted to close the upcoming sardine season, which begins July 1.

The decisions come after fisheries biologists provided regulators with new estimates of the amount of Pacific sardines remaining in the ocean. Under federal law, the Pacific Fishery Management Council can close the sardine fishery if estimated stocks of the fish fall below 150,000 metric tons. The scientists' forecast of Pacific sardine biomass for the 2015-2016 season came in significantly lower: about 97,000 metric tons of live sardines are thought to remain in waters within 200 miles of the West Coast.


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The Pacific Fishery Management Council is one of eight regional fishery management councils that manages fisheries 3-200 miles off the U.S. coastline. The Pacific Council recommends management measures for fisheries off the coasts of California, Oregon, and Washington. The National Marine Fisheries Service can theoretically review the Council's decision before deciding whether to implement it, but that agency is already gearing up to inform fishing boat operators of the closed season. That notification is expected to take a couple of weeks.

The closures affect all commercial sardine fishing boats operating off the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington. The Management Council will allow fishing boats chasing other species such as mackerel to take a small amount of sardines as bycatch, but may shut those other fisheries down if that limit is exceeded.

The Council also made an exception for members of the Quinault Indian Nation in Washington State, who will be allowed to continue catching a much reduced number of sardines as part of their tribal fishery. Sport fishers will also be able to take a small amount of sardines for use as bait. If bycatch, the tribal fishery, bait, and a handful of research pursuits take more than 7,000 tons of sardines, the Council will shut down those fisheries and other activities.

The standard sardine fishing season lasts for an entire year from July 1 through June 31. The Fisheries Council's decisions thus effectively shut down commercial sardine fishing until the end of June, 2016.

"We know boats will be tied up, but the goal here is to return this to a productive fishery," said Council member David Crabbe.

Pacific sardines (Sardinops sagax caerulea) have natural population cycles that cause wild swings in fish numbers. Nonetheless, NMFS biologists reported recently that this year's sardine population number -- the lowest in a quarter century -- would be at least twice as high if there had been no fishing.

That same report contains the frightening information that since 2011, the number of sardines less than one year old has cratered; almost no young sardines were found in census trawls in the last four years.

That collapse in sardine stocks has hurt more than just the fish, and the fishers that make their living catching them. A several-year-long rash of deaths and malnutrition among sea lions is likely due primarily to the collapse of forage fish such as sardines on which the marine mammals rely for food. Other animals from pelicans to humpback whales depend on sardines and other small fish for their survival.

For ongoing environmental coverage in March 2017 and afterward, please visit our show Earth Focus, or browse Redefine for historic material.
KCET's award-winning environment news project Redefine ran from July 2012 through February 2017.

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