Jun 20 2018

Judge rules for Oceana in California anchovy dispute

Just how many anchovies are there off the northern coast of California and are there enough to fish commercially?

Environmental activist group Oceana and the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) have different answers to those questions, and a federal judge’s ruling recently favored Oceana’s view, reducing opportunities for California fishermen.

At issue is the science that NMFS relied on in reaching a 2016 decision to set the total allowable catch (TAC) for northern California anchovy at 25,000 metric tons. The agency set that limit — even though landings typically only total less than a third of that, 7,300t — judging the stock’s maximum sustainable yield to be 123,000t, and calculating an acceptable biological catch of 100,000t. The TAC was set, conservatively, the agency said, at a fourth of that level.

However, after the 2016 rule was adopted, Oceana sued NMFS in federal court arguing that the rule violated principles established in the the Magnuson-Stevens Act because the agency failed “to articulate the scientific basis for this catch limit”.

In January, judge Lucy Koh approved Oceana’s motion for summary judgment vacating the 25,000t TAC rule. NMFS had asked judge Koh to amend that judgement but last week, she declined to do so. When contacted by Undercurrent News, representatives of NMFS’ parent agency, the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), said that its lawyers were reviewing the judgment. It has not decided if it will appeal.

NMFS is currently working on new assessments of the stock to inform future TAC decisions.

Precipitous decline?

In its lawsuit, Oceana, claiming that the anchovy stock had “declined precipitously”, argued that NMFS hadn’t conducted a stock assessment for the species since 1995 and that the true size of the northern anchovy biomass averaged between 10,000t to 15,000t from the 2009 to 2011 period.

It made this claim in part due to a piece of independent research authored by Alec MacCall, which looked at densities of anchovy eggs and larvae.

NMFS argued that that the MacCall study had shortcomings.

“These egg/larval data were collected by the California Cooperative Oceanic Fisheries in a fairly small portion of the range of the stock between San Diego and Point Conception, California,” NMFS lawyers argued, adding that the model used in the study did not take into account anchovies that didn’t spawn during the period studied or laid their eggs elsewhere.

But the judge wrote that “defendants’ arguments fail to discredit the MacCall Study”, and said that because the 25,000t TAC wasn’t based on “best available science”, it would be vacated.

Wetfish worries

Speaking to Undercurrent about the ruling, Diane Pleschner-Steele, the executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, also characterized the MacCall study as flawed. Her group’s members have seen a “huge abundance” of anchovy despite concerns that the stock has collapsed.

Pleschner-Steele said that her group worked last year with the California Department of Fish and Wildlife to perform an aerial survey of anchovy stocks.

“The department’s plane flew along the coast inside the area that the NOAA acoustic trawl survey was transecting at the same time, and our spotter pilot estimated tonnage of the schools he observed,” she wrote.   “We documented tens of thousands of tons of coastal pelagic species — both sardine and anchovy —  that the NOAA cruise did not see or factor into its assessment because they survey largely offshore and don’t come into nearshore waters.   This is now recognized as a problem, and we’re hopeful that we can improve stock assessments over time.”

The California ‘wetfish’ industry that traditionally relied on squid harvesting but supplements that fishery with anchovy, sardines and mackerel. Unfortunately for the fishermen, the sardine fishery has been closed to directed commercial fishing — although an incidental fishery is allowed — and mackerel landings have been low in recent years.

“Things are still pretty tenuous. Right now the only fishery we have is squid,” she said.

Original article:  https://www.undercurrentnews.com/ | Contact the author jason.smith@undercurrentnews.com

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