Sardine population collapses, prompting ban on commercial fishing


The sardine population along the West Coast has collapsed due to changing ocean conditions and other factors, including allegations of overfishing, prompting regulators Monday to cancel fishing next season and schedule a vote this week on an immediate emergency ban. The Pacific Fishery Management Council agreed to close the fishery from Mexico to the Canadian border starting July 1, when the 2015 season begins, after federal scientists documented a 91 percent decline in sardine numbers along the West Coast since 2007. The council, a 19-member policymaking organization made up of fishery representatives from California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, scheduled a vote Wednesday on whether to take the bigger step of immediately halting sardine fishing. “This is a huge step,” said Geoffrey Shester, the California campaign director for Oceana, an international conservation organization that has been fighting for eight years to lower the annual sardine take and implement stricter regulations. A lack of spawning caused by unfavorable ocean conditions was blamed for the decline, but fishery biologists say faulty abundance estimates contributed by allowing regulators to set sardine fishing limits too high. Don McIsaac, the management council executive director, said sardine populations often fluctuate, and cold water over the past three or four years has lowered the birth rate. “Sardines like warm water,” McIsaac said, adding that staff biologists ruled out overfishing as a cause. Stiff quotas and catch limits required by the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act helped save the sardines. Huge quantities of the nutrient-rich fish are hauled up at the Channel Islands in Southern California and along the Oregon coast, where fishermen are now catching as much as 65 tons a day of the schooling piscators. The collapse this year is the latest in a series of alarming die-offs, sicknesses and population declines in the ocean ecosystem along the West Coast. Record numbers of starving sea lions have recently been washing up on beaches in California because there aren’t enough sardines and anchovies for pups to eat. A 2010 study by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Geological Survey and other scientific organizations found that many of the starving and emaciated pelicans are eating worms and other prey inconsistent with their normal diet of anchovies and sardines. The blooms suddenly proliferate for unknown reasons, cover large areas and infuse shellfish, mussels, anchovies, sardines and other filter feeders with toxins that are then consumed by sea lions. The fishery management council, which is required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act to close ocean fishing if the number of fish do not reach conservation objectives, did not place limits on the sardine trade that supplies recreational fishers with bait.