April 13, 2017 — SEAFOOD NEWS — Fishing for Pacific sardines in California has been banned for the third consecutive year.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council voted Monday afternoon in Sacramento to close the fishery through June 30, 2018, because the population limit of 150,000 metric tons wasn’t met.
Researchers estimate that only about 87,000 metric tons of the oil-rich fish are now swimming around off the coast.
The decision blocks commercial fishers in San Pedro, Long Beach and elsewhere across the West Coast from anything other than small numbers of incidental takes. While sardines don’t command the high price of California shellfish, their plentiful numbers and popularity make them one of the state’s most-caught finfish.
But fishery managers say there’s reason to believe sardines are much more plentiful than studies have found.
National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center Deputy Director Dale Sweetnam said the acoustic-trawl method that researchers use to estimate the number of sardines is flawed.
The count is done from a large NOAA ship that surveys the entire West Coast by sampling schools of fish, and then bounces sound waves off of them to create a diagram that estimates the size.
But the ship is too large to go into harbors or coastal areas where sardines like to congregate.
“There are questions about the acoustic detector being on the bottom of the ship — how much of the schools in the upper water columns are missed by the acoustics,” Sweetnam said. “Also, the large NOAA ship can’t go in shallow waters, but most of the sardine fishery is very close to shore.”
The fisheries service will soon employ a California Department of Fish and Wildlife plane, along with drones, to survey coastal areas for sardines.
“It will take some time because we’re going to have to determine a scientific sampling scheme,” Sweetnam said. “We’re starting this collaborative work with the fishing industry to extend our sampling grid-lines to shore.”
However, environmental activists cheered the decision to close the sardine fishery for a third season.
Oceana, a worldwide conservation advocacy organization, blames the sardine population decline on overfishing.
“Over the last four years we’ve witnessed starved California sea lion pups washing up on beaches and brown pelicans failing to produce chicks because moms are unable to find enough forage fish,” said Oceana campaign manager Ben Enticknap.
“Meanwhile, sardine fishing rates spiked right as the population was crashing. Clearly, the current sardine management plan is not working as intended and steps must be taken to fix it.”
Industry representatives, however, argue that fishers are reliable environmental stewards and that they are just as eager as environmental activists to protect the long-term survival of marine species.
California fishers were able to replace sardine takes with increased numbers of squid in recent years. This year, promising anchovy stocks and other fish may keep the industry solvent.
California Wetfish Producers Association Executive Director Diane Pleschner-Steele said fishermen are frustrated.
“Fishermen are just ready to pull their hair out because there’s so many sardines and we can’t target them,” Pleschner-Steele said. “I’m relieved that the Southwest Fisheries Science Center acknowledges problems with the current stock assessment and has promised to work with the fishermen to develop a cooperative research plan to survey the near-shore area that is now missed. Unfortunately, this does not help us this year.”
This story originally appeared on Seafoodnews.com, a subscription site. It is reprinted with permission.