Fishery Managers Scale Back Sardine Harvest

By Terry Dillman
A controversial decision by the Pacific Fishery Management
Council (PFMC) would set catch limits during the initial phase of the 2014
Pacific sardine season well below traditional recommendations.

The dramatic 7-6 vote by council members during their
November 3, 2013 session in Costa Mesa, California sets the interim sardine
quota lower than the specified harvest formula for the first time since the
federal government took over management of the fishery 13 years ago.
The Pacific Coast sardine fishery occurs in phases, with the
first running from January 1 to June 30, primarily off the California coast.
Fishermen can land 35 percent of overall harvest guidelines during that time –
the quota set by the management council. The fishery moves to Oregon and
Washington during the second phase from July 1 to September 14, when 40 percent
of the quota is available. The remaining 25 percent of the harvest limit is
available during the season’s final phase (September 15 to December 31), which
takes place off the northern coasts of Washington and British Columbia.
A “harvest control rule” sets the fishery’s harvest
at a certain percentage of the overall stock. If or when the sardine population
drops below a particular level, fishing stops. Current harvest rates fluctuate
from 15 to 25 percent of the overall estimated population, depending on stock
But conservation advocates called this management approach
inadequate in asking the management council members for a complete shutdown of
the fishery now through mid-2014, or at the very least, otherwise drastically
curtail harvest. Led by Oceana – which bills itself as “the largest
international advocacy group working solely to protect the world’s oceans,”
claiming to have protected “more than 1.2 million square miles of
ocean” since 2001 – conservation advocates requested even tighter fishing
restrictions in a May 29, 2013 letter to Will Stelle, NOAA Fisheries West Coast
Region administrator, and PFMC Chair Dan Wolford.
Ben Enticknap, Oceana’s Pacific campaign manager, said it’s
clear the Pacific sardine population “is in the midst of a crash.” He
called the PFMC decision “a step in the right direction,” but noted
that it’s not enough. “There shouldn’t be any fishing on sardines right
now,” he added.
In fact, the letter to PFMC declared that Pacific sardines
are “in a state of collapse” and “recent exploitation rates have
resulted in overfishing.”
“We are now seeing direct impacts of this sardine
collapse on the water,” the letter stated, noting that current management
measures are not using the best available science. “Unfortunately, the
Pacific sardine fishery has not been managed for long-term sustainability in a
manner that prevents overfishing, achieves optimum yield, and protects the
health of our ocean ecosystem.”
To minimize what they consider a crisis, Oceana leaders asked
for a closure of the sardine fishery for the remainder of 2013 and the first
half of 2014, pending requested changes in fishery management and a new
assessment showing that the sardine population has recovered.
Among other things, the letter asked fishery managers to
“prevent overfishing from occurring again in 2013 and correct current
fundamental flaws in the Pacific sardine control rule” by taking immediate
action “to either close the Pacific sardine fishery due to recently
identified overfishing, the current sardine decline and low abundance,” or
– at minimum – “correct the 2013 overfishing limit, allowable biological
catch and harvest guidelines based on biomass estimates at the start of the
fishing/calendar year.”
Oceana leaders wanted the council to “consider, evaluate
and adopt” the group’s proposed sardine harvest control rule for 2014
management and beyond.
Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California program director,
commended the PFMC’s action as “beginning to heed the warning signs of a
crashing sardine stock,” but also considered it as possibly “too
little, too late.” He and others want the council to take additional steps
to correct what they consider “the underlying problem with sardine
As proof, conservation advocates pointed to recent starvation
deaths of yearling California sea lions due to lack of sardines as prey, along
with what they said are “remarkably low landings” in the California
sardine fishery so far this year. They also pointed to a recent scientific
analysis indicating ocean temperatures and conditions “unfavorable for
sardine productivity.”
Earlier in 2013, NOAA Fisheries managers declared an
“unusual mortality event” for yearling sea lions in Southern
California, caused, they noted, by lack of available food. Researchers say
Pacific sardines (along with other so-called forage fish – the little ones like
anchovies, herring and menhaden) are definitely a key food source for sea
lions, salmon, tuna, brown pelicans, dolphins, whales and other marine species.
The quota share off California’s coast during the first six
months of the season was 23,000 tons, but fishermen hauled in just 4,400 tons.
And a paper published in the journal Proceedings of the
National Academies of Sciences in February 2012 suggested the sardine fishery
is taking too many fish, and claimed that a recovery anytime soon is unlikely.
Researchers Juan P. Zwolinski and David A. Demer stated that
colder ocean temperatures off the coasts of Washington, Oregon and California
have triggered a natural decline in sardine populations – one similar to the
decline in the 1950s that decimated the sardine fishery north of Monterey Bay,
California. Zwolinski is a researcher at the University of California-Santa
Cruz affiliated with the NOAA Fisheries Southwest Fisheries Science Center
(SFSC). Demer is a scientist at the center.
Other NOAA Fisheries researchers challenged those findings.
They and fishing industry representatives said they see signs of the fishery
entering a cycle of natural decline, but management precautions already in
place would prevent the sort of overfishing common in past years.
Kristen Koch, the SFSC’s deputy director, told PFMC members
that sardine populations fluctuate widely and there is no collapse imminent.
The PFMC had already cut the 2013 sardine quota by more than
40 percent to 66,495 metric tons divided among the three phases – 23,000,
26,598 and 19,897 tons, respectively. For 2014, managers wanted to further
reduce limits by more than half. But council member Marci Yaremko, representing
the California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW), asked fellow council
members to take more precautionary measures, dropping the quota to less than a
third of 2013 levels. She said nothing in the current sardine stock assessment
shows the biomass is stable; instead, everything in it “suggests a
Conservation advocates agreed.
“As evidence validating long-running concerns about the
fate of this small, but critically important fish, a new assessment of the
Pacific sardine population shows that the species is at its lowest biomass in
20 years, coast-wide overfishing occurred in 2012, and that the population is
projected to continue this downward trend,” stated an Oceana press release
announcing the PFMC’s decision.
Released October 28, the assessment noted that the sardine
population declined by almost 979,000 tons since 2007, while the fishery
removed 1,035,000 tons during the same time. It also featured 2012 catch levels
that exceeded “maximum sustainable yield,” indicating that
overfishing occurred, the Oceana release noted. According to the assessment
prepared by NOAA Fisheries for the council, the 378,000 metric tons of sardines
expected at the beginning of the 2014 season is a mere 28 percent of the peak
level of 1.4 million tons reached in 2006. Harvests have declined steadily
since 2008, and researchers and fishery managers expect another steep drop in
Under the current sardine management plan, another 60 percent
decline – dropping to 150 metric tons – would require a shutdown of sardine
fishing off the Pacific Coast.
Council member David Crabbe, who represents California’s
fishing industry, presented an amendment outlining a higher catch quota based
solely on the stock assessment and current management guidelines. Council
members rejected Crabbe’s suggestion and – much to the chagrin of sardine
fishermen – narrowly agreed with conservation advocates’ concerns, setting
catch limits for the first six months of 2014 at 6,946 tons.
They said they tried to strike a balance between conservation
and socioeconomics, considering industry needs along with concerns about
sardine stocks.
Fishery advocates called the decision a triumph of politics over
policy that failed to consider the precautionary methods used under current
sardine management. Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the
California Wetfish Producers Association (CWPA) – which represents sardine,
anchovy, squid and mackerel fishermen and processors – said the decision would
essentially penalize California’s historic wetfish industry, and it disregarded
the scientific recommendations from the management team.
Pleschner-Steele serves as vice chair of the committee that
advises PFMC about sardines and other coastal pelagic species.
These so-called “wetfish” include the market squid,
anchovies and sardines that represent 80 percent of all California fishing
industry landings. Also known as “forage fish,” these small species
are critical to the ocean’s ecology and their management is escalating tensions
between fishermen and environmental advocates.
While CWPA leaders say sardines are cautiously managed and
natural explanations exist for declining stocks, environmental advocates like
Oceana’s Shester say that attitude is what led to the previous collapse of the
sardine fishery, when fishermen were allowed to fish “until they couldn’t
find any more fish.” They say the current situation, especially off the
California coast, mirrors those times, when sardines disappeared and didn’t
return for almost 30 years.
This time, they add, recovery could take much longer.
Fishery managers say comparing current management to the good
old days is disingenuous. “Today’s precautionary management framework
cannot be compared to the historic fishery, which harvested as much as 50
percent of the standing stock,” said Pleschner-Steele.
The PFMC is one of eight regional fishery management councils
established by the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act of 1976. It
features 14 voting representatives from Oregon, Washington, California and
Idaho with jurisdiction over the 317,690 square-mile exclusive economic zone
off the Washington, Oregon and California coasts.
Among others, the council manages fisheries for coastal
pelagic species, which live in the water column, not on the sea floor.
The council’s Coastal Pelagic Species (pelagic species live
in the water column, not on the sea floor) fishery management plan outlines the
framework for northern anchovy, market squid, Pacific sardine, Pacific mackerel
and jack mackerel. Fishery managers say Pacific sardine landings and markets
are substantial enough to warrant annual assessment of stock status and fishery
Looking Back
When the Pacific sardine population is large, fishery
managers say it is abundant from the tip of Baja, California to southeastern
Alaska and throughout the Gulf of California. At times, sardines were the most
abundant fish species in the California current that extends offshore from
Oregon to Baja, California.
The Pacific sardine fishery boomed from 1915 to 1951, with as
much as 93 percent of the entire Pacific Coast catch landed in California.
At the height of the sardine fishery in 1945, Monterey,
California was home to 19 canneries and 20 reduction plants. The fishing fleet
featured more than 100 boats. During that time, Monterey earned the title of
“Sardine Capital of the World,” and ranked third among the world’s
major fishing ports behind Stavanger, Norway and Hull, England.
Scientists say sardines almost completely disappeared from
the northern California region in the 1950s – a deep decline caused by a
natural cycle (populations, they note, typically drop when ocean temperatures
get colder) enhanced by overfishing. Sardines reappeared in the 1980s, leading
to a rebound that restarted the fishery during the 1990s. Scientists declared
the sardine resource fully recovered in 1999, estimating the spawning biomass
at more than 1 million metric tons.
As part of the so-called “wetfish” industry –
designated as such because the fishermen can move them “wet from the
sea” to the can with minimal processing – sardines, along with mackerel,
anchovy, market squid and coastal tuna, have made up much of California’s
commercial catch for the past century.
Wetfish remain a vital and lucrative component in the state’s
Established in 2004, the CWPA – which counts most wetfish
catchers and processors among its members – supports research “to conserve
and sustain wetfish resources, promote sustainable fisheries and foster
cooperative research.”
Leaders say California’s current wetfish industry has direct
ties to the traditional sardine industry, with most fishermen and processors
boasting a long personal and family history in the fishery. The association
fosters social and economic relationships that allow many of them “to
withstand the challenges of variable and uncertain environmental, regulatory
and economic conditions.”
Despite the recovery, the sardine fishery operates under
strict harvest guidelines.
Only 65 boats are licensed to fish sardines, mackerel and
anchovy under a federal limited entry program approved in 1999. A few more
actively fish for squid under a restricted access program initiated by state
officials in 2004 that cut the squid fleet from 164 vessels to 77 transferable
“Many boats have permits to fish both squid and wetfish,
and many have fished for decades, handed down to new generations of fishermen
from fathers and grandfathers who pioneered this industry,” the CWPA
website states.
Harvest guidelines deduct 150,000 metric tons from the
biomass estimate for forage. They also require a reduction in allowable catch,
based on sea surface temperature. Harvest rate drops to five percent when the
three-year mean average temperature drops to between 60 and 62 degrees.
Scientific studies indicate that sardine abundance fluctuates widely during
periods averaging about 60 years. Estimated population declines last an average
of 36 years, while recoveries last an average of 30 years.
The most recent recovery traces to the late 1970s.
Looking Ahead
Another recent scientific analysis by an international task
force – including Oregon State University’s Selina Heppell, Marc Mangel form
the University of California – Santa Cruz, and P. Dee Boersma and Tim Essington
from the University of Washington – also recommends cutting down on the global
harvests of sardines and other forage fish that are critical prey for larger
species. The ultimate conclusion by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force deems
these little fish “twice as valuable in the water as in a net.”
Globally, forage fish generate $5.6 billion if caught, but
researchers say they’re worth at least $11.3 billion if managed properly,
because they provide the food source for so many other vital species.
The task force featured 13 researchers from Canada,
Australia, the United Kingdom, France and the United States who have studied
forage fish and their predators, including larger fish (salmon, tuna, cod),
seabirds and penguins and marine mammals (dolphins and whales).
“Forage fish are essential components of marine
ecosystems,” says Heppell, a fisheries ecologist and one of the authors of
the Lenfest report “Little Fish, Big Impact: Managing a Critical Link in
Ocean food Webs.”
The researchers determined that small schooling fish play a
vital role in ocean food webs by consuming phytoplankton and then becoming prey
themselves. Predators switch from one forage fish species to another, depending
on their abundance. Harvest of forage fish has jumped, based on demand – canned
sardines, anchovies on pizza and nutritional supplements for humans, but mostly
for fish meal and fish oil to feed farmed fish, pigs and chickens.
Heppell, who is also on the PFMC science team, says
commercial and recreational fishing groups are concerned about the forage fish
because their livelihoods depend on those little fish.
The task force recommends ecosystem-based management of
forage fish to avoid situations like the eulachon smelt, recently placed on the
endangered species list. Because forage fish populations go through major
fluctuations, Heppell says conservative management is vital. Status and
relative importance of each species can be hard to evaluate, though, partly
because of those fluctuations and partly because many species migrate long
distances. Relative health of populations and differences in fisheries
management also play roles.
Pacific sardine landings in Washington, Oregon and California
are valued at $9 million to $15 million a year. Most are exported to Asia,
primarily for canning or use as tuna bait.
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife marine resources
officials said the effect of the initial reduction in sardine harvest should
prove minimal in Oregon and Washington, where sardine fishing doesn’t start
until July. It could, however, take a toll on those in California and who
travel to California to fish for sardines, depending on whether or not those
fishermen can catch enough anchovies, mackerel and squid to make up the

PFMC is scheduled to review the matter again in April 2014,
when new sardine stock assessment and population estimates are available.