— 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

Posted under Fair Use Rules.

— Monterey Bay: “There’s no squid.”

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. — Los Angeles Times, Jan. 5, 2014 [1]

The core of the ocean’s food web is vanishing.

The Monterey Herald writer says, “Not to panic.” Translation: “Tourists, don’t worry and please keep coming; this is natural.”

“Pristine waters of Monterey Bay” is laughable; agricultural chemical runoff from the Salinas Valley is just one of the long-standing toxic inputs into Monterey Bay, in addition to Fukushima’s new and devastating impact.

But no one mentions Fukushima. El Niño is the excuse and cover story, but it just added additional stress to an already broken and dying marine environment. Below are article excerpts

From Monterey Herald

Monterey Bay squid season basically a bust

May 11, 2016
by Mike Hale

Excerpts:

Monterey >> …“Once El Niño showed up things started to look different in the bay,” said Sal Tringali, president of Monterey Fish Company, who oversees a five-boat fleet that provides local restaurants with most of their fresh seafood, including squid.

Not to panic; our shared “Serengeti of the Sea” is still a pristine habitat. But warming waters along the West Coast have changed the waterscape — at least for now. For example, local squid fishermen have turned out their bright boat lights because the season is basically a bust.

There’s no squid,” said Tringali. “No anchovies either. We’ve seen this before during El Niño.”

It’s quite typical for squid to move on during an El Niño period, according to professor William Gilly, squid expert for Pacific Grove’s Hopkins Marine Station, run by Stanford University. [“Experts” at Hopkins Marine Station, MBARI, Moss Landing Marine Lab, the Monterey Bay Aquarium, Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary, and NOAA have been silent about Fukushima impacts from the beginning as have public officials.]

“We saw a crash in landings in 1997-98 and again in 2009-10 (both El Niño years),” he said. Each time the fishery recovered with the return of the more familiar La Niña.

Gilly points to an anomalous offshore “blob” of warmer water (about 3 degrees above normal) that scientists actually began charting two years ago. This caused squid to move north (in this case), with fishermen landing schools as far away as Sitka, Alaska.

Surging demand in China, Japan, Mexico and Europe has boosted prices and launched a fishing frenzy worth more than $70 million a year. The vanishing act is a concern to fishermen, to wholesalers such as Tringali and to restaurant owners such as Kevin Phillips, who serves more than 1,000 pounds of fresh squid each week out of Abalonetti Bar and Grill on Fisherman’s Wharf…

Phillips tries hard to maintain the quality of the squid served at Abalonetti, and isn’t shy about revealing the industry’s dirty little secret: “Many local restaurants, along with most of the country, are using Monterey Bay squid processed in Asia ,” he said. “It comes ready to use.”

Much of the local catch — 90 percent of the 230 million pounds landed each season along the California coast — is frozen, shipped to China, unfrozen, processed, refrozen, packaged and sent back to the United States as part of a 12,000-mile journey that leaves one giant carbon footprint. It is genuine California squid, and cheaper and convenient, but the process doesn’t score high in the categories of freshness and sustainability

…“My first choice is local squid caught and cleaned here,” said Sam Mercurio of Domenico’s on the Wharf. “When squid are running strong Monterey Fish will put aside some tonnage and freeze it for slower years. We also look to the East Coast, but the squid there is bigger, tougher and not as sweet…

A fisherman himself, [Sam] Mercurio [of Domenico’s on the Wharf] relies on his relationship with his comrades to supply his restaurant with seafood.

“We know exactly where to source everything,” he said.

But these days that’s a challenge. It hasn’t been a good run for the entire Monterey Bay fishing industry. Once known as the Sardine Capital of the World, that fishery is currently closed due to low numbers (sardines are known for their wide-ranging “boom-and-bust” population cycles). Warm waters and a resulting neurotoxin undermined most of the Dungeness crab season. And the commercial California king salmon season started slowly May 1, with Monterey Bay boats reporting meager results.

But it’s the elusive squid that has everyone the most concerned.

“We’ve seen this before and have come close to running out,” Phillips said. “Sometimes it’s better to specialize in chicken wings.”

Mike Hale writes about the food and wine scene in Monterey County. Listen to his weekly radio show “Food Fodder” at noon Wednesdays on KRML, 102.1 FM. Reach the author at thegrubhunter@att.net

http://www.montereyherald.com/business/20160511/monterey-bay-squid-season-basically-a-bust

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

Posted under Fair Use Rules.