Apr 25 2016

D.B. Pleschner: Sardines not collapsing, may be in recovery

On April 10, the Pacific Fishery Management Council closed the West Coast sardine fishery for a second straight year. The council followed its ultra-conservative harvest control policy and relied on a stock assessment that does not account for recent sardine recruitment.

But in fact, there are multiple lines of evidence that young sardines are now abundant in the ocean.

In addition to field surveys, fishermen in both California and the Pacific Northwest have been observing sardines — both small and large — since the summer of 2015. And California fishermen also provided samples of the small fish to federal and state fishery managers. During the council meeting, the industry advisory subpanel — comprised of fishermen and processors — voiced concern with the inability of acoustic surveys — on which stock assessments are largely based — to estimate accurately the number of fish in the sea. These surveys routinely miss the mass of sardines in the nearshore, where the bulk of the fishery occurs in California, and in the upper water column in the Pacific Northwest, where Oregon and Washington fishermen catch sardines. The recruitment we’re seeing now seems much like the recruitment event following the 2003 El Niño. The years 1999-2002 were characterized by strong La Niña conditions, similar to the years 2010-2013. And what happened after the early 2000s? By 2007 the West Coast sardine population hit its highest peak in recent memory.

So by all appearances the sardine population is likely on the upswing — not still tanking as many environmentalists and media reports are claiming.

But despite this evidence of recovery, Oceana’s Geoff Shester continues to argue for even stricter management measures. He accuses the fishery of overfishing sardines, and alleges that overfishing is the primary cause of recent sea lion and seabird mortality. Responding to similar claims that Oceana made in a recent Seattle Times article, internationally acclaimed fishery scientist from the University of Washington Dr. Ray Hilborn said, “Dr. Shester’s comments are some of the most dishonest commentary I have seen in the fisheries world … he simply continues to ignore science and pursue his own agenda.”

Despite what Oceana and other environmental groups claim, the reality is that sardine harvest control rule is very precautionary — perhaps the best example of ecosystem-based management in the world. Sardine harvest policy allocates more than 75 percent of the biomass for forage needs, as it has since the fishery returned in the 1980s.

The lack of flexibility in management policies to adapt to the reality observed in the ocean, especially during assessment “update” years, is a recipe for disaster — and the impact is already being felt by California’s historic wetfish industry. This industry normally produces 80 percent or more of the volume of seafood landed commercially statewide, representing as much as 40 percent of total dockside value. Closure has serious repercussions for California’s fishing economy.

As the subpanel noted to the council, “Adaptive management should work both ways. The council’s current policies make it easy to reduce fishing opportunity, but not to increase it. There is no parallel policy allowing for new data to be incorporated into assessments in update years — or for a fishery to be reopened — until the next full assessment. The current policy has the real socio-economic effect of curtailing fisheries, and by extension harms the industry and dependent coastal communities. Requiring fishermen and industry to tie up the boats and close the processors’ doors for two or three years, or longer, does not achieve Optimum Yield.”

Thankfully, the council did provide a potential lifeline for fisheries to continue by approving a small allowance for sardines caught incidentally in other fisheries. That’s because sardines tend to school with mackerel, anchovy and squid, and fishermen need a reasonable number of sardine caught incidentally to continue to pursue their livelihoods.

The sardine fishery will undergo full assessment in 2017 when all evidence and model assumptions will be reviewed and potentially changed. Hopefully the council will also adopt more real-time management policies in its quest to achieve the best available science. It’s in the best interest of both fish and fishermen.

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