Lost At Sea: Fishers Can't Find Sardines and Climate Change May Be To Blame

Changing water temperatures, poor reproduction, and other factors weighed.

Fishers Can't Find Sardines Off Western Coast of Canada, Climate Change May Be to Blame

A school of Pacific Sardines  (Paul Edmonson/Getty)

Clare Leschin-Hoar's stories on seafood and food politics have appeared in Scientific American, Eating Well and elsewhere.

The sardines off the western coast of Canada have completely disappeared.

No one knows exactly what has happened to the $32 million commercial fishery, but what we do know is stunning: The region’s sardine fishermen returned to port empty-handed after failing to catch a single fish according to a report Tuesday.

Poof! Vanished. Gone. 

Although you may not eat sardines on a regular basis, (though we think you should), the health of this tiny forage fish has had scientists worried for some time.

Sardines, along with anchovy and menhaden, form the base of the food chain for species that range from bluefin tuna to humpback whales to sea birds and dolphins. Forage fish are critically important to the aquaculture industry as well, where they’re ground up, turned into fishmeal, and fed to popular species like farmed salmon.

Geoff Shester, a scientist with conservation group Oceana says they’ve been concerned about the Pacific sardine fishery for some time and warns that effects from a collapse could last for decades.

“This is about the entire Pacific coast including the U.S. and Mexico, not just British Columbia,” says Shester. “If fishermen have stopped fishing because they’ve hit their quota, that’s one thing. But they’re stopping because they can’t find any fish. That means fishery management is failing.”

Indeed, Oceana isn’t the only group worried. The collapse was predicted by prominent scientists who said ocean conditions—including a change in temperature—and poor reproduction rates are contributing to the sardines’ decline.

At least one study has found that climate change is causing the geography of where fish are found to shift, which may be what we're seeing in Canada, too.
 
Fishing pressures on the ecosystem also play an important role.

When sardines are in a productive cycle, they can be fished agressively and their stock can withstand it, while leaving enough for ocean predators, Shester said.

"But if you don’t respond to a natural decline fast enough by limiting fishing, you’re suddenly in big trouble,” says Shester. “It makes the crash even worse because you’ll have fewer sardines remaining. When conditions get productive again, they can’t bounce back because there aren’t enough of them to begin with.”

Canada isn't alone in declining sardine stocks. Paul Shively, forage fish campaign manager for Pew Charitable Trusts, says we’re seeing a similar trend in the U.S. The numbers are striking. In 2007, the U.S. brought in 127,500 metric tons of Pacific sardines.  In 2010, the number shrunk to 66,817 metric tons, and by 2011 that number declined to 44,000 metric tons. 

“We can’t do a lot about the changing temperatures of the ocean and the natural cycles it goes through, but what we can do is to keep from fishing the bottom out of that. We don’t want to fish those last remaining fish,” he said.

Shively is worried about more than just sardines. While sardines are protected under fishery management plans, he points out that there are no such protections for other important species like smelt, Pacific saury and lantern fish.

“If someone wants to fish them, there are no limits on what they can take,” says Shively.

As for the sardine fishery, Shester says we should be paying close attention to the news coming from Canada.

“We’re in an emergency situation right now. Any fishing is overfishing when the stock is in this condition.”

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