Sep 23 2020

US panel votes to keep options open in Pacific sardine fishery rebuild plan

At least 100 commercial harvesters of sardines on the US west coast as well as lots of processors and many others that count on their landings appear to have escaped last week what could’ve been a painful blow.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) voted unanimously, 14-0, to support a rebuilding plan for northern Pacific sardines that gives it the option to keep the maximum quota at 4,000 metric tons per year or to move it up or down depending on the biomass. It was one of three alternatives recommended by the council’s Coastal Pelagic Species (CPS) Management Team.

One of the other two alternatives, which was favored by conservationists, would’ve instead limited the acceptable catch limit (ACL) to 5% of the biomass, while a third option would’ve allowed zero harvests of the species, essentially shutting down the fishery.

Based on the CPS management team’s estimates, the 5% methodology would’ve resulted in an ACL of just 1,414t during the current fishing season, about a third as much as is currently allowed. However, it’s worth noting that actual landings of northern Pacific sardines off the US West Coast have ranged between 2,063t and 2,505t over the last five years.

Pacific sardines. Photo: NOAA Fishwatch

As many as 63 harvesters are active CPS federal entry permittees and another 40 are state-authorized limited entry permittees in Oregon and Washington, according to Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association (CWPA).

Also, because sardines are commonly landed as bycatch, following the conservationist’s preferred approach could’ve resulted in sardines becoming much more of a choke species and interrupting the harvests of Pacific mackerel, market squid, northern anchovy, pink shrimp and Pacific whiting. Such harvesters now have a 20% per weight incidental catch rate, which was dropped last year from a rate of 45%, Pleschner-Steele noted in a recent email exchange with Undercurrent News.

But most imperiled by the prospect of the 5% approach, she said, would be the west coast live bait industry. It supplies recreational harvesters, accounts for $602 million in annual sales and is credited for providing 5,000 jobs.

What comes next

The move by the PFMC has been anticipated since July 2019. That’s when the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s National Marine Fisheries Service (NMFS) notified the council that the biomass of sardines’ northern subpopulation was found to have fallen below the 50,000t threshold that — under the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act (MSA) — triggers the creation of a rebuilding plan within 15 months.

Now that the council has voted, a hew fishery management plan must be implemented within two years and the rebuilding plan must take less than 10 years to reach its goal unless environmental conditions interfere. Shortly after the PFMC sends its recommendations to NMFS, the agency can be expected to publish them in the Federal Register and take comments. It’s rare for NMFS to not follow a council’s advice.

Regardless, harvesters need not worry about the catch limit being changed for the current Pacific sardine season, which began July 1, 2020, and runs until June 30, 2021. Nor is it likely the 2021-2022 ACL will be reduced as a result of the latest action, though the council might be more conservative when that’s set as expected in April 2021, a PFMC staffer advised.

Cannery Row in Monterey, California. The area was renamed after the setting in John Steinbeck’s famous 1945 novel. Photograph on Shutterstock.

CWPA’s Pleschner-Steele, whose group represents both harvesters and processors, was among those pleased with the outcome. She was one of about 17 witnesses to testify in favor of the first alternative during the council meeting, held online because of pandemic concerns.

“The council’s unanimous decision to support the management team’s recommendations shows that they understand reality, the big picture. Our sardine harvest policy already has a built-in rebuilding plan,” said Pleschner-Steele in an opinion article published after the vote, noting how the PFMC closed the main directed fishery in 2015 and sharply reduced incidental harvest rates in 2019.

“Further cuts would drive many fishing businesses out of business, and we appreciate the council’s acknowledgment of that prospect,” she said.

Still from the video “Sardines in California: Fishery in Crisis” by Saving Seafood

The northern Pacific sardines occupy the US Pacific Coast from Southeast Alaska to the northern portion of the Baja Peninsula and are distinguished from two other groups: sardines from the southern Baja Peninsula to southern California and those in Mexico’s Gulf of California. However, Pleschner-Steele argued that many of the sardines being caught are really sardines from Mexico that have migrated north and shouldn’t be counted against the northern sardine cap.

The CPS management team had advised the council also that overfishing was not what was reducing the sardines biomass, putting more of the blame on recruitment.

“Falling below [minimum stock size threshold] triggered an overfished designation; however, overfishing has not been occurring for this stock, as Pacific sardine catch has been well below both the [acceptable biological catch] and the [annual overfishing limit],” the team said.

Learning from the decline of Cannery Row

Three conservation groups testified in favor of the more stringent alternative, including Oceana, Wild Oceans and the Pew Oceans Campaign.  They disagreed with the harvesters, as might have been expected, saying the council has ignored a 2020 study by federal fishery scientists that determined the sardine population has declined 98% since 2006 to instead take a “status quo management” approach.

Credit: Perla Berant Wilder/Shutterstock.com

They noted how the small, oily fish are an important food source for humpback whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, brown pelicans and larger fish like tunas and sharks. They suggested the council pay more heed to the conservation actions that contributed to the infamous sardine crash that ended the iconic Cannery Row era more than 60 years ago.

“Fishery managers have failed to learn from the mistakes of history, and if they don’t act soon, we’ll be doomed to repeat them and continue on an irresponsible pathway that will devastate the sardine population and its prospects for recovery,” said Geoff Shester, a senior scientist at Oceana, in a statement issued after the vote. “It is disappointing that again California wildlife officials, federal managers, and the fishing industry are disregarding the science in order to avoid making hard choices. Today’s decision is a failure of responsible fishery management.”

Pleschner-Steele countered that the great sardine decline of the late 1940s involved harvesters catching 50% or more of the standing stock, while today’s harvest amounts to only 0.6% of the population.

Also, she noted, NOAA research ships are too large to survey near shore, where most fishing occurs in California. For the past few years, fishermen have testified to a growing abundance of sardines on their fishing grounds yearlong, she said.

In fact, fishery representatives are asking the council for a review of the rebuilding plan in 2021 as soon as possible after the next coastwide sardine survey, which was canceled in 2020 due to COVID-19 restrictions. The next survey in 2021 will, for the first time, include nearshore waters, in a collaborative effort using fishing industry vessels, she noted.

Contact the author jason.huffman@undercurrentnews.com


Original post: https://www.undercurrentnews.com/

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