By D.B. Pleschner
When the National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) recently reapproved the 2017 annual catch limit for the central stock of anchovy at 25,000 metric tons (mt), environmental extremists immediately cried foul.
Press releases with doomsday headlines claimed that the anchovy catch limit is now higher than the total population of fish in the sea. Environmentalists claim the anchovy resource has “collapsed” and the current catch limit is dangerously high.
But is the anchovy population really decimated, or are these alarmists simply manufacturing another anti-fishing crisis?
Their claims are based on a paper by Alec MacCall, pegging the central anchovy stock at about 18,000 mt. However, the paper analyzed egg and larval data collected over time in California Cooperative Fishery Investigations (CalCOFI) surveys, conducted in the Southern California Bight — and the conclusion is fundamentally flawed. Other scientists now acknowledge that the CalCOFI cruises do not cover the full range of anchovy, missing both Mexico and areas north of the CalCOFI survey track, as well as the nearshore, where a super-abundance of anchovy now reside, say fishermen.
The CalCOFI survey was designed to track sardine, not anchovy. It misses the nearshore biomass where age 0-1 anchovy live and huge schools of anchovy have been observed since 2013. But the MacCall analysis deliberately omitted nearshore egg-larval data. In addition, peak spawning for anchovy is February-March, but CalCOFI surveys run in January and April, as did the MacCall analysis, thus both captured only the tails of spawning.
Clearly, current data are inadequate to develop an accurate anchovy population estimate. At the November 2016 Pacific Fishery Management Council meeting, scientists, the management team and most council members agreed.
In reality, anchovies are now amazingly abundant from San Diego to Northern California. Scientific data as well as fishermen’s observation bear this out:
• Recent NOAA field surveys documented increased anchovy recruitment and multiple year classes, although data from the 2016 summer survey are still undergoing analysis.
• A 2015 NOAA juvenile rockfish cruise report found evidence of record numbers of anchovy larvae and pelagic juveniles, and saw an abundance of anchovy again in 2016.
And consider reports from fishermen like Neil Guglielmo, who fished anchovy from Half Moon Bay to Monterey in the summer of 2016. He saw thousands of tons of anchovy — school after school running from San Francisco to the Farallon Islands, and down the coast to Monterey and beyond. Similar comments come from many fishermen who fish nearshore waters the length of the California coast.
The big increase in anchovy abundance in nearshore waters in recent years has precipitated a record whale-watching spectacle, recounted in media reports from San Francisco to San Diego. And while doomsday press releases and news stories regurgitate environmentalist claims that the anchovy resource has “collapsed,” Monterey Bay Whale Watch posted a video on Facebook of dozens of sea lions and a humpback whale feasting on thousands of anchovies — only two miles from Monterey Harbor!
The bottom line is that anchovy management employs an extremely precautionary approach, capping the allowed harvest at 25 percent of the average overfishing limit estimated to be harvested sustainably over the long term.
So why are ENGOs lobbying to cut the harvest limit to 7,000 mt, drastically lower than the federal limit, even though the draconian reduction would inflict serious harm to California’s historic fishing industry, especially in Monterey?
Scientists acknowledge that anchovy abundance is highly variable, and that variability occurs even without a fishery. Given multiple lines of evidence of anchovy recruitment, clearly there is no biological crisis, but there could be a serious socioeconomic problem if the small anchovy harvest limit is further restricted.
As the Pacific Fishery Management Council deliberates anchovy management, we hope a credible and thorough scientific assessment process and best available common sense will prevail. Evidence of recent anchovy recruitment must be factored into future management decisions; politics should not drive the outcome.
D.B. Pleschner is executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, a nonprofit dedicated to research and to promote sustainable wetfish resources.
Originally published: http://www.montereyherald.com/opinion/