Apr 8 2020

Pacific Council Approves Sardine Harvest Including More Data From Special Fishery for 2020

April 7, 2020

In its first fully-virtual meeting to avoid spreading COVID-19, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council approved catch specifications for Pacific sardines, allowing for a special fishery that will inform future stock assessments. Pacific sardines have not had a commercial fishery for six years, based on a stock assessment showing low biomass and no recruitment that has been at the center of a years-long controversy.

“One thing everyone agrees on is the need to improve the sardine stock assessment,” stated Marc Gorelnik, vice chair of the Pacific Fishery Management Council.

Even without a commercial fishery, Pacific sardines are caught as bycatch and bait for other fisheries, by Tribes and as a result of scientific surveys. On advice from the Council’s Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC), Coastal Pelagic Species (CPS) Management Team and Advisory Subpanel, and the public, PFMC approved an Annual Catch Total (ACT) of 4,000 mt for the season July 1, 2020 through June 30, 2021, last weekend. That level is similar to last year’s action.

Environmental groups pleaded for more precaution and much lower harvest limits, arguing that the stock assessment shows the stock to be at low and declining levels. National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) declared the northern sardine subpopulation as ‘overfished’ in 2019, triggering the Council to develop a rebuilding plan.

“We greatly appreciate the expressions of concern from the management team and advisory subpanel, and the Council’s action based on those concerns.” said Diane Pleschner-Steele, Executive Director of the California Wetfish Producers Association (CWPA).

“This confict is between what fishermen say is out there, based on what they see, and what biologists say, based on insufficient science,” Pleschner-Steele explained.

Both fishermen and independent scientific surveys have documented sardine recruitment and growing abundance since 2015. But NOAA’s sardine acoustic trawl surveys have not seen it, and those surveys have largely driven the stock assessments in recent years.

Pleschner-Steele notes, “the model used to predict biomass has not updated the age data from the fishery since 2015, because the directed fishery has been closed since that time.”

Faced with this Catch-22, CWPA submitted an application for an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) to NMFS to coordinate a closely-controlled directed fishing effort to capture sardine schools throughout the year. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) has agreed to sample and age all the landings and provide that data for the next stock assessment. The Council unanimously supported that last weekend.

A core managment problem is that Pacific sardines have been considered by federal scientists to be of two groups: a northern stock and a southern stock, separated by a temperature line in the water. The northern stock are thought to be found in water colder than 62 degrees F and southern stocks in warmer water.

Southern stocks are assumed to be migrating from Mexico, but if caught in the U.S. are subtracted from the northern sardine stock assessment, Pleschner-Steele explained.

The CPS management team recommended a year ago that the Council “review the basis for the habitat model and refine estimates of both the catch and biomass attributable to the NSP (northern subpopulation) and SSP (southern subpopulation).”

They noted in their report last weekend that “assigning 16.7℃ Sea Surface Temperature as the boundary of the ‘northern’ stock has eliminated most California sardines from the ‘northern’ stock assessment” and “age composition data from the fishery have not been updated in the model since 2015.”

The advisory panel also argued with the federal survey statement that recruitment has not been observed, and the population is still declining. They say “recruitment has been evident in live bait pens and observed by fishermen since 2015.”

Environmental groups, meanwhile, are asking the Council to revise the entire management structure to provide more forage for other species. Pleschner-Steele notes that the entire CPS complex fishery, including sardine, amounts to less than two percent of the key forage pool, which also includes other forage species.

Scientists widely acknowledge that environmental forcing drives the abundance of sardines and other CPS; these stocks rise and fall based on natural conditions in the ocean, with negligible impact from fishing.

“Meanwhile, CWPA and California sardine fishermen, as well as sardine fishermen in the Pacific Northwest, are committed to conduct the research necessary to improve the sardine stock assessment. If the ‘northern’ sardine stock assessment accurately reflected the abundance of sardines reported by fishermen virtually yearlong (in water temperatures below 62 degrees F), northern sardines would not be considered ‘overfished,’ Pleschner-Steele said.

Other high priority recommendations from the industry advisory group asked for a review of the habitat model, as suggested by the SSC, use the juvenle Rockfish Survey as an indicator of recruitment, and support futher efforts by industry to improve the science surrounding the sardine stock assessments.

Peggy Parker

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