By D.B. Pleschner
“In Monterey Bay, and around the world, little fish are in big trouble,” wrote Sascha Zubryd in her May 13 Sentinel article.
The article reported on a new study by Stanford researchers, who expressed surprise that small coastal pelagic fish, such as sardine and anchovy, were as subject to collapse as large predator fish.
But this isn’t news to scientists well-versed in the cycles of these coastal pelagic species. In fact, the first academic research paper that said essentially the same thing appeared in the 1880s, more than 100 years ago.
What’s more, in California, these species are not in trouble.
When asked about the Stanford study, Dr. Richard Parrish, a former member of the West Coast Coastal Pelagic Species Management Team and recently retired from the National Marine Fisheries Service, said, “I am always amazed when academic scientists publish papers on fisheries and are surprised by things that were well-known and published decades ago in fisheries journals.
“The brief answer is yes, small fishes can be and often are overfished,” he added. “The problem is confounded with environmental fluctuations that occur with a periodicity which suggests that you can believe what your grandfather tells you, but you cannot believe what your father tells you.”
Sardines are a classic example.
The storied Pacific sardine collapse in the 1940s was widely blamed on overfishing, but decades later scientific studies of core samples taken from the deep anaerobic trench in the ocean off Southern California revealed layers of sardine scales and layers of anchovy scales corresponding with oceanic cycles. Warm-water cycles favored sardines and cold-water cycles favored anchovies. The bottom line: the sardine population would have declined even without fishing pressure.
Such findings led Dr. Parrish and other members of the management team to design a new, ultra precautionary harvest strategy for sardines when the population was declared fully recovered in 1999.
And the same precautionary principles apply to other coastal pelagic stocks as well, in light of their known cycles of abundance and importance in the ecosystem as forage for other marine life.
Today’s fishery management of coastal pelagic species in California and along the West Coast portion of the California Current Ecosystem is acknowledged as the most precautionary in the world, one of only a few areas deemed to be “sustainable” by internationally recognized scientists Rebuilding Global Fisheries, Science 2009.
The basic management strategy adopted a decade ago for coastal pelagic species harvested in California and on the West Coast maintains at least 75 percent of the fish in the ocean to ensure a resilient core biomass. And the protection rate for sardines is even higher — about 90 percent.
In addition, the state of California is implementing a network of no-take marine reserves throughout state waters. Reserves established at specific bird rookery and marine mammal haul-out sites, for example near Año Nuevo, the Farallon Islands, and the Channel Islands in Southern California, are explicitly intended to protect species such as anchovy, sardines and market squid as forage for other marine life.
Recently, concern over increased utilization of small fishes worldwide has grown in response to a perceived increase in demand for fishmeal for an expanding aquaculture industry.
But again, this risk does not apply to California, as reduction fisheries and fishmeal plants no longer exist in the Golden State.
In Monterey and California overall, people can rest assured that the little fish are not in trouble here; rather these coastal pelagic species are harvested sustainably, and they still contribute enormous benefits to the socio-economic and cultural well-being of our harbor communities.