SEAFOODNEWS.COM [Editor’s View] by John Sackton – April 14, 2015
Yesterday the Pacific Fisheries Management Council closed the directed West Coast sardine fishery for the first time in 30 years. The move was widely expected, as fishery managers adopted a precautionary plan to shut the fishery during cyclical periods of low abundance.
This year’s stock estimates, which have been revised downward based on likely recruitment failure in 2014, range from 97,000 to 133,000 metric tons, significantly below the 150,000 ton spawning stock threshold set by the council.
Sardines are a cyclical fish, with population boom and bust that is closely related to water temperature. A period of several years of colder water off California has led to poor recruitment, and a stock collapse. Although waters in southern areas have warmed in the past two years, there has not yet been a response in increased sardine populations.
“While this is a sad day for all those dependent on a healthy sardine fishery, it is actually a good thing that this Council is addressing the problem directly, something you don’t always see across the nation or certainly, internationally, ” said Council member Frank Lockhart of National Marine Fisheries Service.
“This Council cutback on salmon with extensive closures a decade or so ago, and the Klamath and Sacramento stocks rebuilt fairly quickly. This Council also cut back on lingcod and other groundfish catches in the recent past, and those stocks are also rebuilt. This action today paves the way for the sardine population to rebuild as soon as the ocean cycles permit. ”
Sardines are subject to large natural population swings associated with ocean conditions. In general, sardines thrive in warm water regimes, such as those of the 1930s, and decline in cool water years, like the 1970s. After reaching a recent year peak of about one million metric tons in 2006, the sardine biomass has dropped to an estimated 97,000 metric tons this year.
Council Vice Chair Herb Pollard said, “The Council’s Fishery Management Plan has done its job. When the sardine stock declines to this point, the directed commercial fishery stops. This is a testimony to the precautionary provisions the Pacific Council has locked into our management regime. ”
In essence, the Pacific Fishery Management Council not only has a precautionary system in place for sardines, they have a strong track record of rebuilding other fisheries though application of the same principles.
So it is strange that organizations like Ocean and Pew rush to the press to call the Sardine closure a failure of fishery management.
“It turns out the sky was falling,” said Geoff Shester, California program director for Monterey-based Oceana.
“There’s a management failure here, ” he said. Oceana filed a lawsuit in 2011 demanding the council take more action to lower the fishing rates than it did. A judge refused to hear the case on grounds that it was not filed in a timely fashion, but the case is now on appeal.
“They didn’t respond fast enough to the decline, ” said Shester, who blamed overfishing for worsening an already bad situation. “Now we find ourselves in a crisis situation. ”
The problem for Oceana is that it is well known that in fisheries like sardines and anchovy, populations skyrocket and then collapse. The pacific sardine spawning biomass was over 1 million tons about ten years ago, and is now less than 10% that size. Tinkering with fishing levels would not change this outcome – but would shut down many other West coast fisheries.
One of the problems for NGO’s is that the best scientific data is still only an estimate – and subject to revision and updates. That is why the Council is being so cautious. Sardines are hard to count in the water column, and the council well could have overestimated the size of the 2014 recruits. But they took the most conservative number, recognizing their survey may have overstated the population, and that their prior year estimates of 2014 may have been too high.
The council was able to act because it has the resources and scientific support to effectively monitor the west coast sardine populations.
Yet the current bill for the reauthorization of Magnuson in the House of Representatives would take away the requirements for sound scientific advice – and the funding for such research, from most other areas of the country.
When Oceana goes to the press and says the Pacific Sardine Closure is a result of management failure, when in fact it is managers successfully reacting to scientific data, they undermine public confidence in fisheries management.
On the West Coast, such management has brought back salmon runs that were shut in emergency action; it has rebuilt Pacific Whiting Stocks, it has halted and reversed the critical decline in certain species of rockfish, and as a result, virtually all Pacific Coast groundfish are now not only MSC certified, but celebrated by Chefs who follow the advice of the Monterey Bay Aquarium.
And Oceana calls this a record of failure!
Paul Shivley, Portland, Oregon-based project manager for The Pew Charitable Trusts, said he was pleased overall with the council’s action but disappointed it allowed so much “incidental” fish to be caught.
“What they’ve created is a situation where the rebound will inevitably be slower because of how much they left for incidental fisheries,” Shivley said, but did not address the fact that many healthy fisheries require some amount of sardine bycatch. When will his message of support be unqualified, saying the management system has worked.
We do have a problem in that some in Congress make the argument that since money for science is not available, they change the law to throw out or weaken the requirements to use best available science in a precautionary way, and instead go back to managing the nation’s fisheries after they collapse, and not before.
When NGO’s are so focused on smashing a gnat on pavement with a hammer, they completely miss the steamroller coming towards them. Instead of rallying their followers to support the successful record of fishery managers, they mislead their followers with the argument that the managers have failed – and the corollary argument that they are not worth fighting for.
This is selfish and irresponsible. Now matter how good they are Oceana and the other NGO’s cannot replace the successful system of fishery management based on sound science that we currently have in the US – one of the most stringent management regimes in the world.
But their take no prisoners attitude towards this system – never crediting its success; never telling their followers how important it is to maintain government resources and support for this system – is irresponsible. It means they are putting their own goals of building up their organization above the real steps needed to maintain sustainable fisheries. It is a stance they may come to regret.