Sep 13 2017

California Acting Governor Gavin Newsom Requests Disaster Relief for Sardine, Urchin Fisheries

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Sardine and sea urchin closures in California have prompted Acting Gov. Gavin Newsom to request fishery failure declarations for both.
Newsom noted in his Sept. 5 letters to U.S. Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross that ocean conditions caused the closure for sardines and affected the kelp forest ecosystems on which red urchins depend.

The California Wetfish Producers Association lauded Newsom’s request to Secretary of Commerce Wilbur Ross to approve a declaration of a commercial fishery failure for California’s Pacific sardine fishery. His action was precipitated by La Niña’s cold-water oceanic conditions that are believed to have caused sharply reduced sardine recruitment and the closure of this commercial fishery since 2015.

“This declaration is very important as it will enable California’s historic sardine fishery and its participants to seek federal disaster relief to offset the economic harm fishermen and processors have suffered since the fishery closure,” California Wetfish Producers Association Executive Director Diane Pleschner-Steele said in a statement Tuesday.

The Pacific sardine fishery has been managed under the federal Coastal Pelagic Species Fishery Management Plan (CPS FMP) since 2000. The CPS FMP established a harvest cutoff, prohibiting directed fishing if the sardine population falls below an estimated 150,000 metric tons. Due to low stock assessments, the fishery was closed in 2015 and 2016, and will remain closed in 2017 and possibly even 2018, although sardines have returned to abundance in the nearshore area, where fishing normally takes place.

Certain thresholds have been established that help the National Marine Fisheries Service and Secretary of Commerce make a determination of whether a commercial fishery failure has occurred. One of these involves an analysis of the economic impact and states that revenue losses greater than 80 percent are presumed to be a commercial fishery failure. This is determined by comparing the loss of 12-month revenue to average annual revenue in the most recent five-year period.

“This fishery is historically one of the top 10 highest valued commercial fisheries in California,” Newsom said in his letter regarding the iconic sardine fishery. “Statewide, the commercial closure in 2015 resulted in a total value of $343,148, which is 90 percent less than the 2010-14 average of $3,504,098. That dropped to $95,657 in 2016, which was 96 percent less than the 2011-15 average of $2,711,679.”

The figures for the urchin fishery, particularly in northern California and Orange County, were dire as well.
“The impacts to the regions are evident in the fishery landings data,” Newsom wrote. “In 2016, the northern California fishery ex-vessel revenue fell by 77 percent compared to the 5-year average from $2,587,419 to $604,440, Orange County ports fell by 93 percent from $85,382 to $6,045, and San Diego County ports fell by 48 percent from $574,526 to $297,594.”

Newsom’s letter noted the initial estimates for both fisheries are based on the average ex-vessel value of commercial landings but do not account for additional impacts to seafood processors or related industry businesses that rely on the either or both fisheries.

The sardine fishery is the foundation of California’s wetfish industry, which for decades has produced 80 percent or more of annual statewide commercial fishery landings, until recent years, the CWPA statement said. While fishermen and markets may harvest and process other species in the coastal pelagic species complex, sardines have been the historic mainstay of this industry, and the loss of fishing opportunity has created severe economic impact to both fishermen and processors.

The urchin fishery has been a staple for small-boat fishermen throughout the state for a number of years — until recently.
“Persistent warm ocean conditions that began in 2014 in northern California and 2015 in southern California has affected the fishery in these two regions,” Newsom’s letter said. “In northern California, the warm water event devastated kelp production (93 percent loss of surface kelp canopies compared to 2008 levels), a primary food source for urchins that created persistent starvation conditions. Starvation has led to reductions in the food value of the urchins targeted by the fishery in northern California.

In addition, a population explosion of the less marketable purple sea urchin continues to overgraze the recovering kelp beds, adding further stress to the fishery. In southern California, urchin mortality increased in response to warm El Nino conditions and disease in 2015. This has reduced the numbers of healthy red sea urchins in southern California available to the fishery.”

The Governor’s request for federal declaration now opens the door for fishermen and processors in California’s fisheries to pursue a federal disaster declaration from the Secretary of Commerce and appeal to California’s congressional delegation to pursue legislation allocating funding for disaster relief. Such funds would help alleviate the economic and social harm suffered as a result of these disasters.

Funds could also be used for cooperative research projects, Pleschner-Steele said, such as the collaborative aerial survey of the nearshore area that CWPA participates in with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife in efforts to improve the accuracy of stock assessments.


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