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Commercial sardine fishing vessel getting ready to launch skiff with the net (Photo: Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife)

Sardine fishery quota slashed for 2013, but worries remain

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Thursday, November 22, 2012, 02:30 (GMT + 9)

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) has voted to set the 2013 catch level for the US West Coast Pacific sardine fishery at 66,495 tonnes. They took this action after reviewing a new scientific assessment showing this sardine population dropped 33 per cent from the previous year and has been in continuous decline over the past six years, while recruitment is the lowest it has been in the last two decades. 

While catch levels will be lower in 2013 than in 2012, the fishery council ignored increasing catch rates by Canada and Mexico; ignored warnings from scientists that the stock is collapsing; and failed to account for the importance of sardines as prey for whales, seabirds and other fish like salmon and tuna, Oceana wrote.

“They rubber stamped the 2013 catch levels based on a formula they know is flawed,” said Geoff Shester, California Programme Director for Oceana. “It is frankly unbelievable, that the Council recognizes its current management is outdated and needs to be revised, yet year after year they continue to set quotas that are driving the population to collapse.”

A study published earlier this year in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences found that the Pacific sardine population is collapsing. The scientists, including authors from the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS), said that managers may be making the same mistakes all over again that led to the major population crash in the late 1940s that was made famous by Steinbeck’s Cannery Row. 

The scientists found a “critical” threshold in the population level, below which it is at risk of severe collapse. The stock assessment reviewed by the council shows the sardine population has now dropped below that threshold.

“It is high time for the NMFS to change the way Pacific sardine fisheries are managed,” said Ben Enticknap, Pacific Project Manager for Oceana. “They have the science and the technology to do it right, but they refuse to consider new options.”

Pacific sardine are a critical food source for innumerable marine species including fish that support other recreationally and commercially important fisheries. These small fish also support one of the top three west coast fisheries by volume. 

In 2011 west coast sardine landings were worth over USD 9.7 million, yet their value left in the water may be much more. Most sardines caught off the west coast are exported as aquaculture feeds or bait.
 
Shester explains, “The current catch levels are set without considering how much needs to be left in the ocean to support a healthy food web, and without considering other recreationally and commercially important fish species that need to eat sardine to thrive. Ultimately, this hurts not only the sardine stock, but coastal communities and ocean wildlife.”

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