— California: Sardine fishing could be banned for 3rd year in a row; “nosedive” — 95% below 2006; anchovies decline, lack of zooplankton

Zooplankton are not overfished.

San Francisco Chronicle

by Peter Fimrite
March 24, 2017

The once-thriving sardine population — made famous in John Steinbeck’s novel “Cannery Row” — has taken a nosedive along the West Coast, where regulators are considering a ban on reeling in the tiny bait fish for a third year in a row.

Sardine numbers have plummeted 95 percent since 2006, according to estimates released Friday by the National Marine Fisheries Service. The perilously low numbers give regulators little choice but to again close fishing starting July 1 from Mexico to the Canadian border.

If the initial estimate for this year remains in place, the fishery will be closed for the third straight year,” said Kerry Griffin, the staff officer for the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which makes policy along the coasts of California, Oregon and Washington. “We all want a healthy ecosystem, sustainable fisheries and healthy coastal communities that depend on fishing opportunities.”

Fishery biologists blamed the collapse on natural fluctuations — which recent sediment studies show have been common throughout history — and changing ocean conditions. Conservationists, however, believe overfishing made a bad situation worse.

There would have been a decline anyway, but we made the decline worse by continuing to fish,” said Geoffrey Shester, senior scientist for Oceana, an international advocacy group that has been fighting to lower the annual sardine take and implement stricter regulations. “Scientists in the agency warned about a collapse, but the managers of the fishery didn’t pay attention to that and, in fact, took a much higher percentage of the existing stock.”

The 14 voting members of fishery council, which will meet April 10 to discuss the issue, are required by federal law to close ocean fishing if the number of fish do not reach conservation objectives.

Griffin defended management of the fishery, arguing that sardine populations were very high from 2005 through 2007, just before their numbers began to decline. Fishing is allowed under council rules until the population falls below a certain threshold, which didn’t happen until 2015.

Look, we have this harvest control rule that is quite conservative and protective of the stocks,” Griffin said. “When the numbers fall below the cutoff, we close the fishery.”

The dilemma harkens back to the mid-1950s when the Monterey Bay canneries of Steinbeck fame began failing, mostly as a result of overfishing. Stiff quotas and catch limits required by the federal 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act helped save the sardines.

The population of the tiny epipelagic fish increased throughout the 1990s and Monterey Bay once again became the Bay Area hub of sardine fishing, with a large population also thriving off the coast of San Francisco.

Huge quantities of the nutrient-rich fish were being hauled up at the Channel Islands in Southern California and along the Oregon coast, where fishermen were catching as much as 65 tons a day of the schooling pilchards and bringing in between $10 million and $20 million in annual revenue from sales, Shester said.

The sardine population peaked in 2007, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But then sardine numbers — which can only be measured using their collective weight — dropped, from 1,037,000 metric tons in 2007 to the estimate of 86,586 metric tons scientists found this year. That’s well below the 150,000 metric ton threshold required for commercial fishing.

What’s most troubling to me is that you have this clear story where we’ve made the same mistakes we made during the cannery row days, and yet we have the unwillingness of the management bodies to reform and make changes that could have avoided this,” Shester said. “We have to change the way we manage these fish.”

The fishery collapse isn’t isolated to sardines. Anchovies, which thrive in cold water, have also declined over the past decade due largely to fluctuating ocean temperatures and a lack of zooplankton, their food of choice.

The result has been record numbers of starving sea lions washing up on beaches in California over the past few years because there haven’t been enough sardines and anchovies for pups to eat.

Brown pelicans, too, have suffered from mass reproductive failures and are turning up sick and dead in California and Oregon. A 2010 study found that many of the starving and emaciated pelicans are eating worms and other prey inconsistent with their normal diet of anchovies and sardines.

This does hurt coastal communities,” Griffin said. “Sardine fishermen can typically fish for other stocks like squid, mackerel and anchovy, but when one or more of those stocks is down, the impact is real.”

Despite some efforts, including among local Indian tribes, to promote the scaly creatures as a healthy local delicacy, sardines are mostly sold for bait. The fish are generally frozen in big blocks for use in commercial long-line fishing and for feed at Australian and Japanese blue fin tuna farms.

Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: pfimrite@sfchronicle.com. Twitter: @pfimrite

http://www.sfgate.com/science/article/Sardine-fishing-could-be-banned-for-3rd-year-in-a-11026667.php

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— Squid are part of ocean’s core food web; in 2014, California sardines crashed

In recent years scientists have gained a deeper understanding of sardines’ value as “forage fish,” small but nutrition-packed species such as herring and market squid that form the core of the ocean food web, funneling energy upward by eating tiny plankton and being preyed on by big fish, seabirds, seals and whales.

From the Los Angeles Times
January 5, 2014
By Tony Barboza

The sardine fishing boat Eileen motored slowly through moonlit waters from San Pedro to Santa Catalina Island, its weary-eyed captain growing more desperate as the night wore on. After 12 hours and $1,000 worth of fuel, Corbin Hanson and his crew returned to port without a single fish.

“Tonight’s pretty reflective of how things have been going,” Hanson said. “Not very well.”

To blame is the biggest sardine crash in generations, which has made schools of the small, silvery fish a rarity on the West Coast. The decline has prompted steep cuts in the amount fishermen are allowed to catch, and scientists say the effects are probably radiating throughout the ecosystem, starving brown pelicans, sea lions and other predators that rely on the oily, energy-rich fish for food.

If sardines don’t recover soon, experts warn, the West Coast’s marine mammals, seabirds and fishermen could suffer for years.

The reason for the drop is unclear. Sardine populations are famously volatile, but the decline is the steepest since the collapse of the sardine fishery in the mid-20th century. And their numbers are projected to keep sliding.

One factor is a naturally occurring climate cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, which in recent years has brought cold, nutrient-rich water to the West Coast. While those conditions have brought a boom in some species, such as market squid, they have repelled sardines.

If nature is responsible for the decline, history shows the fish will bounce back when ocean conditions improve. But without a full understanding of the causes, the crash is raising alarm.

An assessment last fall found the population had dropped 72% since its last peak in 2006. Spawning has taken a dive too.

In November, federal fishery managers slashed harvest limits by more than two-thirds, but some environmental groups have argued the catch should be halted outright.

“We shouldn’t be harvesting sardines any time the population is this low,” said Geoff Shester, California program director for the conservation group Oceana, which contends that continuing to fish for them could speed their decline and arrest any recovery.

The Pacific sardine is the ocean’s quintessential boom-bust fish. It is short-lived and prolific, and its numbers are wildly unpredictable, surging up and down in decades-long cycles in response to natural shifts in the ocean environment. When conditions are poor, sardine populations plunge. When seas are favorable, they flourish in massive schools.

It was one of those seemingly inexhaustible swells that propelled California’s sardine fishery to a zenith in the 1940s. Aggressive pursuit of the species transformed Monterey into one of the world’s top fishing ports.

And then it collapsed.

By mid-century sardines had practically vanished, and in the 1960s California established a moratorium on sardine fishing that lasted 18 years. The population rebounded in the 1980s and fishing resumed, but never at the level of its heyday.

Since the 1940s scientists have debated how much of the collapse was caused by ocean conditions and how much by overfishing. Now, researchers are posing the same question.

“It’s a terribly difficult scientific problem,” said Russ Vetter, director of the Fisheries Resources Division at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center.

Separate sardine populations off Japan, Peru and Chile fluctuate in the same 50- to 70-year climate cycle but have been more heavily exploited, Vetter said. West Coast sardines are considered one of the most cautiously fished stocks in the world, a practice that could explain why their latest rebound lasted as long as it did. The West Coast’s last sardine decline began in 1999, but the population shot back up by the mid-2000s.

In recent years scientists have gained a deeper understanding of sardines’ value as “forage fish,” small but nutrition-packed species such as herring and market squid that form the core of the ocean food web, funneling energy upward by eating tiny plankton and being preyed on by big fish, seabirds, seals and whales.

Now, they say, there is evidence some ocean predators are starving without sardines. Scarcity of prey is the leading theory behind the 1,600 malnourished sea lion pups that washed up along beaches from Santa Barbara to San Diego in early 2013, said Sharon Melin, a wildlife biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Melin’s research indicates that nursing sea lion mothers could not find fatty sardines, so they fed on less nutritious market squid, rockfish and hake and produced less milk for their young in 2012. The following year their pups showed up on the coast in overwhelming numbers, stranded and emaciated.

We are likely to see more local events like this if sardines disappear or redistribute along the coast and into deeper water,” said Selina Heppell, a fisheries ecologist at Oregon State University.

Biologists also suspect the drop is hurting brown pelicans that breed on California’s northern Channel Islands. The seabirds, which scoop up sardines close to the ocean surface, have shown signs of starvation and have largely failed to breed or rear chicks there since 2010.

Brown pelicans were listed as endangered in 1970 after they were pushed nearly to extinction by DDT, which thinned their eggshells. They were taken off the list in 2009 and now number about 150,000 along the West Coast.

Though pelicans have had more success recently in Mexico, where about 90% of the population breeds, environmental groups think the lack of food at the northern end of their range could threaten the species’ recovery.

Normally, pelicans and sea lions would adapt by instead gobbling up anchovies. But aside from an unusual boom in Monterey Bay, anchovy numbers are depressed too.

“That does not bode well for everything in the ocean that relies on sardines to get big and fat and healthy,” said Steve Marx, policy analyst for the Pew Charitable Trusts, a nonprofit that advocates for ecosystem-based management of fisheries.

Fishermen also attest to the scarcity.

The West Coast sardine catch oscillates with the market and was valued at about $14.5 million in 2013, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service. But California fishermen pulled in just $1.5 million worth of sardines last year, preliminary data from state Department of Fish and Wildlife show.

Just a few years ago, Hanson, the sardine captain, didn’t have to travel far from port to pull in nets bulging with sardines.

Not anymore. If his crew catches sardines these days, they are larger, older fish that are mostly shipped overseas and ground up for pet or fish food. Largely absent are the small and valuable young fish that can be sold for bait or canned and eaten.

Still, when he embarked for Catalina Island on a December evening, Hanson tried to stay optimistic. “We’re going to get a lot of fish tonight,” he told a fellow sardine boat over the radio.

After hours of cruising the island’s shallow waters, the voice of another boat captain lamented over the radio, “I haven’t seen a scratch.” So the Eileen and other boats made an about-face for the Orange County coast, hoping to net sardines in their usual hideouts.

No such luck.

By daybreak, Hanson was piloting the hulking boat back to the docks with nothing in its holds.

tony.barboza@latimes.com

http://articles.latimes.com/2014/jan/05/local/la-me-sardine-crash-20140106

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