Oceana’s Geoff Shester recently penned an op-ed in The Santa Cruz Sentinel alleging that forage fish harvesting is out of control and must be reigned in. The only problem with his opinion: the “facts”. They are, in fact, not accurate, but instead reflect an agenda.
Below, I’ve highlighted Mr. Shester’s false claims and followed them with a dose of reality:
• “Thirty years ago forage species accounted for 40 percent of California’s commercial fish landings by weight. Today, with big fish gone, forage landings have soared to 85 percent”
In 1981, a moratorium was in effect prohibiting sardine fishing, and tunas dominated California landings, totaling more than 40 percent of the California catch. The tuna canning industry based in San Diego, then the tuna capitol of the world, was driven out of California beginning in the mid-1980s, due in large measure to unfair competition from foreign water-packed imports and the excessive cost of doing business in the Golden State. Those ‘big fish’ weren’t gone from the ocean, however, they were just not landed in California.
The sardine resource made a dramatic recovery beginning in the late 1970s, with the advent of a warm-water oceanic cycle. Resource managers reopened the fishery in 1985, but this time around, they enacted strict harvest limits coupled with environmental triggers. The resource was declared fully recovered in 1999 when the population exceeding one million metric tons. But the harvest rate was capped at 10 percent after subtracting 150,000 mt off the top of the biomass estimate to account for forage needs. The stock appears to have entered another natural decline and biomass estimates have dropped sharply. Which brings up another allegation:
• “…Overfish the forage and the rest of the marine species are in trouble…but that is exactly what is happening in California today. Pacific sardines have declined 70 percent in the past decade, and market squid are being fished at record levels. California fisheries, like salmon, rockfish and tuna, are depleted and in dire need of recovery.”
Regarding sardine, the conservative biomass estimate does not measure transboundary stocks in Canada and Mexico, but it does count landings from those countries, and those have declined; but coastwide harvest guidelines, including Washington and Oregon, as well as California, have also declined precipitously – from 152,000 mt in 2007 to 40,000 mt in 2011.
The market squid statement also is calculated to confuse.
California’s ocean has exhibited incredible productivity in the past two years, producing the highest grey whale count on record, resurgent rockfish stocks and a rebounding salmon fishery. Market squid also thrived in these productive ocean conditions, but the fishery did not hit ‘record levels’. In fact precautionary management has established a maximum harvest cap, intended to prevent overexploitation. The fishery reached it and was closed before the end of the year. A post-season survey of the squid spawning grounds revealed large aggregations of squid spawning nearly everywhere, well beyond end of the normal spawning cycle.
The squid life cycle runs from birth to death after spawning in nine short months or less, and abundance is driven primarily by environmental cycles. To maintain a sustainable fishery, The Department of Fish and Game instituted weekend fishing closures, allowing squid to spawn untouched for 30 percent of the week, and implemented marine reserves in more than 30 percent of traditional fishing grounds in central and southern California. In addition, the fishery management plan approved in 2004 reduced the fleet by more than half.
California fisheries are by no means depleted, they are managed strictly by both the state and federal government (that’s why landings have appeared to decline – more fish are left in the ocean!). Rockfish and salmon are managed under the ecosystem-based fishery management mandate of the federal Magnuson Act, with precautionary annual catch limits to prevent overfishing.
• “A recent federal study found that top ocean predators off California have declined by more than 50 percent since 2003. Removing their source of food is like taking medicine away from the patient. Traditional fisheries management concentrates on single species …”
The study, presumably the first draft of the “California Current Integrated Ecosystem Assessment”, does not yet include the area south of Point Conception – a critical omission acknowledged by the scientific team. The draft IEA was submitted to the Pacific Fishery Management Council as an example. Clearly, with data from a significant part the ocean missing, conclusions are not ready for ‘prime time’.
The IEA was developed to assist the Council in developing its Ecosystem-based Management Plan for the entire California Current – which will inform all the other fishery management plans, which now include ecosystem considerations themselves. (The Coastal Pelagic Species plan has considered forage needs for more than a decade!)
Similar innuendos and misstatements run throughout the article, but I will touch on just one more:
• “The question of fishing sustainably is a matter of political will. That’s why a strong coalition of conservationists, fishermen and seafood businesses that want to see … healthy California oceans are supporting Assembly Bill 1299 that emphasizes the critical role that forage species play…”
A vast majority of California’s fishing communities, including municipalities, port districts, recreational and commercial fishing groups and individuals, seafood companies and knowledgeable fishery scientists, believe California already fishes sustainably; indeed, California Current fisheries are acknowledged as having one of the lowest harvest rates in the world.
This super-majority is very much opposed to AB 1299, seeing that it embodies the same type of confusing, captious policy statements as contained in the ‘forage fishing must be controlled’ article.
To be clear, the majority of California fishing-related interests oppose the bill for the following reasons:
- A multi-million dollar boondoggle: AB 1299 is a solution in search of a problem. This bill fails to acknowledge and integrate all the existing protections for forage species that now exist in both state and federal law. Whales, sea lions, and sea birds are thriving, providing clear evidence that state and federal forage species policies are working. Moreover, there are no ‘reduction’ fisheries in California, nor fishmeal plants, so the alleged threat from increasing forage fish production for aquaculture does not exist here: fisheries are strictly regulated.
- Fails to recognize existing efforts: California has done a good job managing forage fish – far better than most other states and countries. In addition to strict harvest rates and other management measures, the Marine Life Protection Act has implemented no-take reserves, including many near bird rookeries and haul out sites to protect forage for other marine life. To start as if from scratch is both redundant and disrespectful of that management history.
- Requires non-existent funding and staff time: Department of Fish & Game (DFG) is already enormously underfunded and understaffed for its existing tasks. The increased demand for Department research and management resources that this bill would create cannot be met without sacrificing resources for programs that are actually necessary.
- Duplicates federal and state efforts: Oceana, the bill author, admitted at a public forum that California’s Marine Life Management Act already provides a science-based process to manage forage species. The federal Pacific Fishery Management Council is currently developing its California Current Ecosystem Management Plan, which will cover the entire West Coast, not just California state waters, with objectives similar to those in AB 1299. We encourage California to collaborate with the PFMC, which does not require legislation.
- Places impossible standard on fisheries: The May 27 amendments to AB 1299 camouflage the millions needed to do specified research and make findings, yet still require new fishery management plans and amendments to fishery plans to be consistent with the new policy after January 1, 2012. The new policy objective requires ecosystem-based management that “recognizes, prioritizes, accounts for, and incorporates the ecological services rendered by forage species”. This implies setting explicit allocations for birds and mammals off the top of all fishery harvest plans – and much of this information is not available. Although final amendments in Appropriations Committee removed specific language, the threat of restriction is still inherent in this policy.
AB 1299 still requires millions in new money for DFG to prove that a fishery had no negative impacts before allowing it to operate. This is money that could be going to schools, health care, and other state programs with proven needs.
- AB 1299 does not consider best available science, and could actually impede ecosystem-based management. AB 1299 will not protect forage species as virtually all range far beyond California state waters, but the policy proposed in this bill could severely restrict California fishermen unnecessarily and unfairly.