The West Coast’s Sardines Are Still Dropping Like Flies

The important baitfish population has declined another 30 percent since commercial fishing was shut down last year.
Fishers pull sardines onto a boat. (Photo: Nacho Doce/Reuters)
Feb 29, 2016· 2 MIN READ
Taylor Hill is an associate editor at TakePart covering environment and wildlife.

It’s been almost 11 months since federal officials shut down commercial sardine fishing off the West Coast of the United States. But instead of the hopeful return of the baitfish responsible for supporting some of the world’s largest fisheries, sardines appear to be continuing their downward spiral.

By summer, sardine populations are forecast to be 33 percent lower than they were last April, when fishery managers deemed there were too few fish to catch, according to a draft assessment from scientists with the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Conservation group Oceana says the fishery closure last year was too little, too late.

“The reaction that comes from commercial fishing operators can’t come years after population declines are already established,” said Geoff Shester, California campaign director for Oceana. “We’ve seen consecutive years of decline in these fish, yet the catch totals weren’t reduced. That leads to a complete shutdown, fishermen out of jobs, and a failed ecosystem.”

As a species, sardines are known for “boom and bust” population cycles in which fish numbers rapidly rise and fall over multiple years depending on a variety of environmental conditions.

But unnatural fishing pressures are upending that natural cycle. New research shows that increased fishing pressures deepen these declines, or “troughs,” and can push forage fish species such as sardines toward collapse.

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For sardines, the most recent boom came in 2007, when nearly 1 million metric tons of fish were estimated to be swimming off the U.S. coast. The 100 or so commercial fishing boats in California, Oregon, and Washington were soon cashing in—some years bringing in more than 100,000 metric tons to the docks, worth about $20 million annually.

By 2013, the good times had dried up. Sardine numbers had been steadily dropping, and fishing boats were netting a larger percentage of the sardines left at sea.

Last year, the population dropped to 96,688 metric tons—below the 150,000-metric-ton “reserve stock” NOAA’s fisheries management plan requires be in place before fishing can even start. Now, the total biomass of sardines is down to 64,422 metric tons—a 93 percent decline from the 2007 peak.

Albert Carter of Ocean Gold Seafoods in Westport, Washington, said the new figures are troubling for the small-fishing community.

“The sardine fishery is an important part of our business,” said Carter, who serves on a Pacific Fishery Management Council advisory committee. “We employ 400 to 500 people a day when the sardine fishery’s open, but when it’s shut down like last year, it hurts employment in this small coastal town.”

After looking at the most recent numbers, Carter said he expects the Pacific Fishery Management Council to address the issue at its March 10 meeting, and that it will most likely elect to keep the fishery closed for another year.

Shester says fishery managers have swept the sardine collapse under the rug, blaming the decline on natural events such as El Niño instead of implementing better fishing regulations.

“It’s a broken system when you allow the fishing fleet to allot 40 percent of their catch to sardines and label it as ‘bycatch’ even when the fishery is closed,” Shester said. “It’s perfectly legal under the current system, and it’s totally destructive to the fishery.”