Sardine Fishing Could Be Shut Down, and That’s Good News for Starving Sea Lions

Nature, overfishing, and climate change are all suspects in a steep fall in fish stocks.

(Photo: Antonio Busiello/Getty Images)

Apr 8, 2015· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

The West Coast’s sardine fishing fleet may be returning to the docks early this year, as fishery managers are mulling shutting down the sardine season because there aren’t enough fish left in the sea.

And while most Americans are not big sardine eaters, the West Coast’s starving sea lions sure are.

These baitfish support some of the largest fisheries in the world, not to mention their natural predators, including tuna, sea lions, seabirds, and whales. More than 1,400 sea lions have been treated at rehabilitation centers up and down the coast so far this year, with most found emaciated and stranded on the beach.

Some biologists have called the wave of sea lions washing up on the coast an “anomaly,” but when you string together three years of higher-than-average sea lion pup strandings, it starts to look more like a pattern.

With sardine stocks plunging, the Pacific Fishery Management Council is likely going to shut down fishing at its April 12 meeting instead of waiting for the season to end on July 1.

Conservation group Oceana believes sardine-fishing closures should have already been put in place so the few sardines left can sustain the struggling sea lion population and other wildlife.

“Previous stock assessments were way too optimistic and weren’t matching up with what was observed on the water,” Oceana scientist Ben Enticknap told The Associated Press. “The sea lions and seabirds have been starving since 2013, pelicans since 2010. Everyone knew something was going on because there wasn’t enough food to eat for these predators. Now this stock assessment comes out saying that the sardine population is much lower than they had previously expected.”

It’s a trend that’s gotten worse since the region’s 100 or so boats brought in around $20 million worth of fish in 2012. Catch totals have dropped the past two seasons, and the Pacific sardine population along the coast of California, Oregon, and Washington has dropped dramatically over the past decade.

So what’s happened to the ecologically important and still economically viable baitfish? Nature, overfishing, and possibly climate change.

Sardines are known for their “boom and bust” population cycles—populations can rise and fall rapidly depending on a number of conditions. But when the species faces the added pressure of overfishing, it can be catastrophic during those “bust” years.

A new study published on Monday found that fishing deepens the “troughs,” or low points, in forage fish population cycles, bringing the numbers of fish such as sardines, herring, and anchovies to dangerously low levels.

This year, El Niño–like weather conditions are affecting wind patterns, altering the natural upwelling of ocean water off the Pacific Coast, keeping water temperatures in some areas of the Pacific much higher than average—as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit in some areas.

The warm water along the coast is pushing the cold water–loving sardines and other forage fish farther offshore, leaving mother sea lions to set out on longer trips to catch fish for their pups. Those pups get impatient, venture out on their own for food, and often end up emaciated and alone on California’s beaches.

While climate change hasn’t yet been linked to the change in the Pacific sardine fishery, studies have shown warming ocean patterns are expected to change the geography of fish species around the world.

Even more concerning, scientists linked the 2012 collapse of the Caribbean’s sardine population to climate change, finding that the region’s decline in plankton—which sardines feed on—is most likely because of a lack of ocean upwelling owing to a change in wind and weather patterns linked to global warming.

The changes have resulted in an 87 percent collapse in the sardine fishery off Venezuela’s coast—similar to the 90 percent drop on the West Coast of the United States.