There won’t be any boats pulling bulging nets of fresh sardines out of the ocean along the West Coast this year after another dramatic decline in population virtually guarantees a ban on the commercial take of the tiny schooling fish.
The northern Pacific sardine population, stretching from Mexico to British Columbia, has plummeted 98.5 percent since 2006, according to a draft stock assessment released this week by the National Marine Fisheries Service and the Pacific Fishery Management Council.
It means regulators have no choice but to ban sardine fishing for the fifth straight year starting July 1 from Mexico to the Canadian border.
“We’ve been urging for an overhaul to the way sardine are managed for the last seven years,” said Geoff Shester, a senior scientist with Oceana, an ocean conservation advocacy group. “It is critical to hold fishery managers accountable for exacerbating this modern-day sardine collapse and seek management changes to use best available science to learn from our mistakes.”
The 14 voting members of the fishery council, which makes policy along the California, Oregon and Washington coasts, will meet April 12 in Rohnert Park to discuss the results and vote on regulations, but a fishing ban is inevitable.
The latest assessment projects 27,547 metric tons of sardines will be swimming along the West Coast on July 1.
It means the sardine population is less than 2 percent of its peak population in 2006, when the fish — which are measured using their collective weight as if inside a fishing net — reached 1,774,784 metric tons, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.
The collective weight of the fish this year is well below the 150,000-metric-ton threshold required before commercial fishing can be allowed. It is also below the 50,000-metric-ton level that triggers a rule requiring the council to declare sardines “overfished,” Shester said.
Last year at this time there were 52,065 metric tons of sardines and the year before that there were 86,586, according to the fishery council assessments.
Sardines, which generally get frozen in big blocks for use as bait and feed, often end up as by-catch, meaning they are caught up in nets set out for other species.
Shester said the fisheries service is required to develop a plan for recovery. He proposes new catch limits on the capture of sardines for use as live bait and more restrictive limits on the percentage of sardines snared in nets meant for other fish.
Biologists blame the collapse on natural fluctuations — which have been common throughout history, according to recent sediment studies — as well as changing ocean conditions. But conservationists such as Shester, however, believe overfishing made a bad situation worse.
Scientists warned as early as 2012 that the sardine population on the West Coast was ready to collapse, but regulators allowed sardine fishing to continue until 2015. Shester said the same mistake was made in the mid-1950s when the Monterey Bay canneries made famous by John Steinbeck’s novel “Cannery Row” began failing.
Stiff quotas and catch limits required under federal law by the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act helped save the tiny epipelagic fish, and their population increased throughout the 1990s. Then, in the 2000s, Monterey Bay once again became the Bay Area hub of sardine fishing, with a large population also thriving off the coast of San Francisco.
Fishing fleets hauled in huge quantities of the nutrient-rich fish around the Channel Islands in Southern California and along the Oregon coast. It wasn’t unusual for a boat to bring in up to 65 tons of sardines a day.
The catch was bringing in $10 million to $20 million in annual revenue until the latest collapse.
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