Larry Derr was as prepared as any longtime Southern California bait fisherman for the disappearance of the Pacific sardines he has pulled up by the ton since the 1980s.
He can fish anchovies instead and, if those become scarce, there’s been a local surge in market squid to keep him in business.
But the fickle sardines have been so abundant for so many years – sometimes holding court as the most plentiful fish in coastal waters – that it was a shock when he couldn’t find one of the shiny silver- blue coastal fish all summer, even though this isn’t the first time they’ve vanished.
And the similar, but smaller, anchovies have proven a poor replacement since sardines became scarce. Fortunately, a boom in market squid has propelled Derr and other coastal pelagic fishers.
In three days of nighttime fishing last week, Derr barely cleared a measly 20 scoops of anchovies to sell.
“A couple days ago we caught a ton of anchovies,” Derr said, keeping a vigilant eye for the telltale red mass on the In-Seine’s sonar during a predawn hunt Saturday. The screen remained black with irregularly dispersed green dots representing schools too small to fish. “We want this to be solid red.”
Though sardines aren’t as valuable as tuna or rockfish, they’re an important food source for larger fish, marine mammals like sea lions, dolphins and whales, and sea birds that can spot them from the air and dive for them.
Some have attributed recent rashes of sea lion pup and pelican deaths to the sardine population decline, which began a few years ago and was officially recognized in December when the fishing quota was dropped to just 5,446 metric tons for all of California, Oregon and Washington from January to June. In the same time period last year, the quota was 18,073 metric tons.
The Pacific Fishery Management Council lowered the quota in November after years of sardine stock decline from 2006, when 1.4 million tons were estimated to be swimming around the north Pacific. This year, their numbers are believed to be less than 400,000 metric tons.
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