May 7 2018

THE REAL STORY BEHIND SARDINES — Neil Guglielmo

Reporter Anne Roth quoted me in her article “When will sardines return? Not any time soon say scientists.” But she got many of her facts wrong, missed the point, and misquoted what I said. Here’s the true story.

I’m one of the fishermen whose observations Diane Pleschner-Steele relied on when she said ‘fishermen are seeing more sardines, not less.” We began seeing an abundance of small sardines beginning around the fall of 2014, leading up to the 2015 El Niño.

In fact, independent surveys as well as NOAA surveys also encountered record numbers of young of the year – both sardines and anchovies. The NOAA acoustic-trawl cruise caught a bunch of young sardines in its trawl net in 2015, but when scientists included the length composition data from those fish into the stock assessment model, it blew up the biomass estimate to more than a million tons. Scientists thought that was unreasonable, so they threw out the data.

The reporter quotes Oceana’s Geoff Shester extensively as an “authority” on sardine, but fails to acknowledge objective, and contradictory, scientific evidence on two important points: the first is that sardine abundance is driven primarily by ocean cycles with negligible impact from fishing pressure, especially considering the precautionary modern-day harvest allowance, and sea lions are now found to be at or above carrying capacity, and higher pup mortality rates are expected, along with an increase in disease that is also apparent now.

Oceana is quick to accuse the fishery of “overfishing,” but this is grounds for libel, as this allegation has been debunked not only by scientists but also by the [former] NOAA Assistant Administrator for Fisheries.

The reporter also misunderstood the reason why incidental catch rates are low now. It’s not because sardines are scarce and they don’t school – it’s just the opposite. Sardines often school with other fish like anchovy, and the mix can be 50:50 percent or higher. We don’t catch many sardines now because the percentage of sardine in mixed schools is often ABOVE the 40 percent rate allowed, so we must forego catching them.

The truth is that fishermen have seen an increasing abundance of sardines since at least 2015, but the government is only now beginning to realize and acknowledge that they’re missing fish in their stock assessments. We think they’re missing a lot of fish, and we’ve offered to help them document the abundance inshore of their surveys. But that’s going to take time, and the bureaucracy moves slowly. It may take years for government surveys to fully assess and account for sardines in the area where most of the sardines are, and I only have a few years of fishing left. But I hope I do see a return to sardine fishing in my lifetime. Fishermen know far better than scientists how many fish are in the ocean. It’s time they start listening to us.

 


When will sardines return? Not any time soon say scientists

Neil Guglielmo, a 76-year-old commercial fisherman, says he doubts the sardine stock will bounce back in his lifetime. (Annie Roth — Herald Correspondent)

Monterey >> Less than 30 years after the Pacific sardine population was deemed “recovered,” the stock has once again fallen into a severe slump according to stock assessments conducted by the National Marine Fisheries Service.

Scientists estimate the West Coast population of Pacific sardines has declined by 95 percent since 2006. Although sardine populations naturally fluctuate in response to shifting climatic conditions, overharvesting is believed to have accelerated the stock’s collapse. Although no one knows exactly how long it will take for the sardine supply to replenish, many scientists are certain it won’t be anytime soon.

“I wouldn’t be surprised if the stock didn’t come back for 20 years.” said Dr. Geoff Shester, California program director and senior scientist at Oceana, the world’s largest ocean conservation non-profit.

In 2012, scientists from the National Marine Fishery Service warned that another collapse was imminent — but this warning went largely unheeded. When this warning was issued, sardine biomass was still above the 150,000 ton threshold required for commercial fishing. The Pacific Fishery Management Council — whose members include fishermen, industry stakeholders, and federal and state officials from the National Marine Fisheries Service — said there wasn’t enough evidence of decline to justify a moratorium on commercial sardine fishing.

Sardine fishing continued until 2015, when the stock fell below the commercial cutoff and the directed fishery was closed. Shester believes the council’s failure to take precautionary measures made a bad situation worse.

“Because the population was already declining, and fishing made it worse, the stock is going to have a lot more trouble recovering than it would have had had we stopped fishing earlier,” said Shester.

Pacific sardines were on the rise during the early 2000s, but in 2006 the population took an unexpected downturn. Estimates suggest the Pacific sardine population decreased from 1.8 million tons to 86,000 tons between 2006 and 2017. The latest assessment puts the size of the Pacific sardine stock at a mere 52,065 tons, a fraction of the 150,000 ton threshold required for commercial fishing.

“Ultimately, a trade off was made to fish in the short term, and that’s now having this detrimental consequence that may last for decades,” said Shester.

Sardines are an important food source for several marine species including sea lions, salmon, brown pelicans, dolphins, and whales, and in California — whose coastal waters boast relatively large numbers of Pacific sardines — the fallout of their decline continues to be evident from shore.

Starving California sea lion pups have been washing up on beaches by the thousands since 2012, most suffering from malnutrition. According to a press release issued by the Marine Mammal Center in 2013, “The sardine and anchovy fish numbers were extremely low in 2012, and it appears this resulted in female adult sea lions having a difficult time providing enough nourishment to their pups.” Scientists estimate that 70 percent of California sea lion pups born between 2013 and 2014 died before weaning age due to a lack of nutrient rich food.

Even though the commercial sardine fishery is closed, you might still see sardines on the menu. The Pacific Fishery Management Council allows a few thousand tons to be harvested by fishermen who catch them incidentally or intend to sell them as live bait. In April, the council set an incidental catch limit of 7,000 tons for the 2018 fishing season.

Shester says this year’s incidental catch quota is “irresponsibly high” and considers the council’s decision to continue allowing a limited harvest a step in the wrong direction.

“There is no level of sustainable fishing on a stock that’s collapsing,” said Shester.

Fishermen rarely meet incidental catch quotas simply because it is very difficult to catch sardines by accident. In order to commercially land sardines caught incidentally, they have to make up less than 40 percent of your catch. Because sardines rarely form schools with other marketable species, achieving this ratio can be challenging.

If Pacific sardine biomass falls below 50,000 tons, fishery managers are required to close the live bait fishery and implement a moratorium on incidental harvest. In 2018, the estimated sardine stock was only 2,000 tons over this threshold. If current trends continue, it’s unlikely the stock will make this cutoff next year — but many fishermen have high hopes that it will.

In a press release issued earlier this month, Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, said “fishermen are seeing more sardines, not less, especially in nearshore waters.”

Not only does Pleschner-Steele reject the notion that overfishing played a role in the decline of the sardine stock, she calls the stock’s collapse “fake news.”

“Oceana claims that overfishing is the cause of the sardine fishery decline, but the absolute opposite is true: fishing is a non-issue and more importantly, the sardine stock is not declining.”

Pleschner-Steele believes the way the National Marine Fishery Service conducts its sardine stock assessments is fundamentally flawed and urges members of her organization to disregard them.

“This [latest] stock assessment was an update that was not allowed to include any new methods and was based primarily on a single acoustic survey that reached only as far south as Morro Bay and totally missed the nearshore coastwide,” said Pleschner-Steele.

The National Marine Fishery Service has acknowledged its inability to survey nearshore areas, but the agency doesn’t believe the lack of this data has compromised the accuracy of its assessments.

“We’re likely missing some sardines but maybe not at a huge portion,” said Josh Lindsay, a fishery policy analyst from the National Marine Fisheries Service.

“There is a broad understanding from the agency that we are not sampling the entire population, and a lot of that uncertainty gets built into our stock assessment model,” said Lindsay

For the last several years, scientists from the National Marine Fishery Service have been developing new ways to improve the accuracy of the agency’s stock assessments. The agency recently announced plans to use solar powered autonomous drones, also known as saildrones, to survey waters that their ships can’t reach.

Pleschner-Steele hopes surveys of nearshore areas will prove her theory that the stock is increasing, but not all fishers share her optimism. Neil Guglielmo, a commercial fisherman and member of the California Wetfish Producers Association, fears the stock won’t bounce back in his lifetime. The commercial purse-seiner says he began to suspect the stock was crashing seven years ago, because sardines were becoming increasingly difficult to catch.

“When there’s a lot of fish around, they’re easy to catch,” said Guglielmo.

Guglielmo, who has been catching sardines, anchovies and squid off the California coast for more than 40 years, shares Pleschner-Steele’s view that the latest stock assessment underestimated the true size of the stock, but unlike Pleschner-Steele, Guglielmo doesn’t think the sardine population is bouncing back.

“I’m 76 years old. Unless something drastic happens, I don’t think I’ll ever fish sardines again,” said Guglielmo.

Leave a Reply