Longtime bait fisherman, Mike Spears near the net aboard the In-Seine off the shores of Marina del Rey.
A new, beautifully produced but troubling public service announcement from Oceana features “Glee” television actress and singer Jenna Ushkowitz diving with sea lions off Santa Barbara.
Fishing, she says, decimated Southern California’s historically booming stocks of Pacific sardine and Northern anchovy, a major food source for top ocean predators. Those stocks have dropped dramatically in the past decade, prompting reduced fishing quotas as starved sea lion pups and California brown pelican chicks die in record numbers.
“Sea lions rely on forage fish for survival. But years of overfishing have put this important food source in jeopardy,” Ushkowitz narrates while underwater footage shows her swimming through kelp. “Join Oceana and help protect forage fish in the Pacific. … We need to stop this and replenish.”
The West Coast’s leading fishery scientists, however, disagree. They believe the fish are most likely enduring natural population fluctuations and are on the cusp of making a big comeback.
Oceana, a nonprofit advocacy organization favored by celebrities such as Leonardo DiCaprio, insists that fishing is the primary problem. The group lobbied aggressively to close the West Coast anchovy fishery, delivering nearly 40,000 letters from concerned citizens nationwide to the Pacific Fishery Management Council, a 14-member body that sets fishing policy for California, Oregon and Washington, before its meeting last week.
“We are greatly concerned that management of the commercial forage fisheries off California, Oregon and Washington is leaving ocean wildlife without enough fish to eat,” said Oceana’s form letter to the council, signed by thousands of citizens. “Approximately three times as many sea lions washed ashore in 2015 compared to 2013. Similarly, California brown pelicans have been abandoning their nests due to lack of forage fish.”
Oceana helped to close the Pacific sardine fishery earlier than usual this year by stoking public concern about declining stocks of the important food source. They hoped to do the same for Northern anchovies, but the council decided to allow anchovy fishing to continue this season until the current, relatively low quota of 25,000 metric tons is reached.
Sardine fishing will not resume until researchers complete another assessment of their population numbers, though fishers report seeing tons of them in the water.
Corbin Hanson, a fisherman who supplies Tri Marine Fish Co. on Terminal Island with catch from his family-run fishing boat, the Eileen, said anchovies and sardines are plentiful.
“Anchovies are still here in large volumes,” Hanson said. “I was just driving through them (Thursday) night. To say there are no anchovies in this water is absurd. It comes from such an obtuse perspective on our ecosystem.
“The anchovy population ebbs and flows a lot and, as fishermen, we know that it’s going to come back. The volatility in the anchovy stocks is present with or without commercial fishing.
“I don’t find it comforting that organizations (like Oceana) can make knee-jerk decisions about our coastal ecosystem when they’re not even on the water. The research they’re using to formulate their opinion isn’t even recent.”
Researchers agree environmental changes, not fishers, caused the population crash. New evidence points to a record-breaking boom in young anchovies and sardines farther north this year in Central and Northern California, and on the Oregon border, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center. Researchers say that they appear to have eluded study because the fish changed their spawning times and locations with the sustained warmer ocean temperatures.
But the intense public scrutiny prompted fishery managers last week to re-evaluate how they count the fish in an effort to find out whether overfishing is truly a problem. They will hold a spring workshop to determine the best, most accurate way to estimate their numbers. They’re hoping to strengthen partnerships with Canadian and Mexican fishery managers to best estimate how many fish are out there. These fish are difficult to track because they often don’t travel in schools, and they move quickly with changing environmental conditions, researchers say.
Historically, they’ve relied on landing data, and the acoustic-trawl method of using echo-sounding and sonar beams to develop underwater maps of fish densities. They also collect egg samples to determine how many fish are likely to be born in a season, and take aerial and ship surveys.
“The fish move north, south, onshore, offshore, up and down in the water column. They’re here one day and gone the next. And they’re subject to big population swings, so it’s hard to get a true picture of the biomass at any time,” said Kerry Griffin, a staff officer for the council.
“There are weird things going on in the ocean right now, with the ‘warm blob,’ El Niño, ocean acidification and toxic algae up and down the coast,” Griffin said. “We are gradually incorporating ecosystem-based management into our fishery-management plans.
“And paying more attention to environmental and oceanic patterns is the first step to getting a better understanding of relationships between species and the environment.”
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