Aug 25 2010

Sardine study assisted by local scientists, pilots, fishermen

Comprehensive count will help determine fishing season

By TODD GUILD, Watsonville Register-Pajaronian
Aug. 24, 2010

In an effort to give scientists and the fishing industry a comprehensive picture of sardine populations along the West Coast, two fishing boats from Moss Landing and one small plane from Watsonville are taking part in a large-scale study of the small fish that once powered the Monterey Bay’s economy.

Since July, a team of scientists has been plying the waters along the West Coast to study the sardine schools, a project intended to give researchers a better picture of the populations of sardines and allow the fisheries industry to better regulate sardine fishing seasons.

The sardine season, which is loosely scheduled from January through August but is largely determined by tonnage caught, has closed for the year, however. The West Coast sardine survey will include fishermen with special permits and spotter planes that will fly and photograph transects at 15-mile intervals from Cape Flattery in Washington to San Diego.

The study was launched when government reports of sharply-declining populations over the past three years contrasted with sardine harvesters’ reports of huge schools.

According to Dr. Doyle Hanan, a retired senior marine biologist from the California Department of Fish and Game who is heading up the California portion of the study, the sardine fishery is considered one of the more sustainable ones. Few other species are accidentally caught and the population of sardines is so high that there is little chance of overfishing, he said.

Still, the study, which is estimated to cost more than $5 million and is funded by the California Wetfish Producers Association and the Pacific Fisheries Management Council, is an important one that will give scientists and the sardine industry the most detailed picture to date of the populations extending from Canada to Southern California, Hanan said.

“We want to ensure that we know how many fish are out there, and that we’re harvesting them at a sustainable level,” Hanan said.

During the study, a fleet of small planes mounted with high-resolution cameras will fly over the ocean along the length of the West Coast and as far out as 76 miles to look for telltale signs of large schools of sardines.

Researchers will then estimate the total surface areas of the schools, then boats to take samples of the fish, which will be measured and weighed.

Allen Hewett of Aptos is the pilot helping with the Central Coast portion of the study. As he flies 4,000 feet above the water, he said he looks for signs of the sardines, such as huge flocks of birds and pods of whales feasting on the little fish.

“When you see 80 tons of sardines from the air, it’s something to see,” he said.

The two boats participating in the study have been given special permission to catch and sell the sardines, but profits from the sales will help fund the study, Hanan said.

Another team of boats and planes are helping with the Southern California study, while an additional team works the area north of the Oregon border.

“The scientific goal of our groundbreaking project is to photo-document and measure the schools of sardines extending the length of the Pacific coast, and ultimately to understand their migration patterns to ensure sustainability,” said Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of CWPA. “This aerial survey will dramatically increase our knowledge of the Pacific Coast sardine population and could also improve future fishing opportunities, which have suffered greatly in recent years.”

Results will be compiled and presented at a sardine stock assessment review panel in September and may be used to help determine the estimated abundance of the Pacific sardine resource and help fisheries management officials determine the 2011 harvest guideline.

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