Apr 13 2021

PFMC Approves Pacific Sardine Fishing Levels for 2021

Conducting its April meeting via webinar, the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) approved management measures for the ‘northern’ stock of Pacific sardines for the season July 1, 2021 through June 30, 2022. The conflict over sardine fishery management became painfully apparent after the Scientific and Statistical Committee (SSC) rejected the catch-only sardine biomass projection, which was the only estimate available because NOAA field surveys were cancelled in 2020 due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The catch for the Mex-Cal fishery (33,000 tons with only about 700 tons from California) was nearly three times larger than the sardine model’s northern sardine catch estimate for the Mex-Cal fishery in 2020. The Mexican catch was actually higher than the entire 2020 biomass estimate. This discrepancy illuminated serious problems with current assessment methods and assumptions.

The SSC recommended several urgent research priorities, including reconsideration of the model and assumptions used to assign sardines to northern vs. southern stocks. The CPS Management Team and Advisory Subpanel also supported the SSC’s recommendation to fall back to the 2020 assessment, and add another layer of precaution to account for the uncertainty, until problems can be addressed in a full stock assessment with independent scientific review. The approved management measures reduced the already low allowable catch by another 25 percent.

“We greatly appreciate the expressions of concern from the SSC, 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 conflict is between what fishermen say is out there, based on what they see, and what biologists say, based on insufficient science.”

Both fishermen and independent scientific surveys have documented sardine recruitment and increasing abundance. But assumptions of continued decline and low recruitment caused the directed sardine fishery to be closed in 2015, and ‘northern’ sardines to be declared ‘overfished’ in 2019, which reduced the incidental take of sardine in other fisheries to 20 percent. The Council also was required to develop a rebuilding plan.

The directed fishery has been closed for nearly 7 years, and the model used to predict biomass has not updated the age data from the fishery since 2015. Stock assessment scientists prefer only age data from ‘directed’ fishing, and have not used age data from incidental catches or the live bait fishery, which have both seen an increase in small fish in recent years. The problem is that NOAA’s sardine acoustic trawl surveys, conducted primarily offshore, have not seen it, and those surveys, coupled with assumptions made regarding ‘northern’ and ‘southern’ sardines, have largely driven stock assessments in recent years.

To resolve this Catch-22, CWPA requested and received an Exempted Fishing Permit (EFP) in 2020 and coordinated a closely-controlled directed fishing effort to capture sardine schools throughout the year. The California Department of Fish and Wildlife (CDFW) sampled and aged all the landings. Age data shared with the Council during the meeting showed a spike in young sardines, virtually all captured in water temperatures under about 62 degrees F, assumed to be ‘northern’ sardines.

CWPA is also conducting a nearshore acoustic survey in California this year, in cooperation with the Southwest Fisheries Science Center (SWFSC), and has been cooperating with CDFW since 2012 in the Department’s nearshore aerial survey. “There’s a substantial body of sardines (and anchovy) in nearshore waters inshore of NOAA surveys in California. These fish need to be included in stock assessments, and we’re cooperating with the SWFSC and Department to collect the data needed,” Pleschner-Steele commented.

Another frustrating problem that California fishermen continue to face is the current scientific assumption that all sardines above 62 degrees F are assumed to be ‘southern’ stock sardines that have migrated up from Mexico. Those fish are subtracted from the ‘northern’ sardine stock assessment. But for management, all catches are deducted from the ‘northern’ sardine harvest limit, regardless of water temperature. This is a big problem, particularly in summertime in southern California, when the live bait fishery is active. All California coastal pelagic (CPS) fisheries have been impacted by current sardine management policies that restrict the incidental catch of sardine to only 20 percent. This has sharply reduced landings for CPS finfish like anchovy and mackerel, because fishermen must try to find pure schools with no or few sardines. Even the squid fishery has had problems avoiding sardines.

“We strongly support the SSC’s urgent research priorities,” Diane Pleschner-Steele said. “We need to fix the problems with sardine assessments and management as soon as possible.” She added, “we 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.’”

California fishermen and processors are grateful that the Council considered the issues and uncertainties raised and combined scientific underpinning with practicality and common sense. Balance is a key mandate of the Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act. The Council and NMFS are required to consider the needs of fishing communities, not just biology, in developing rebuilding plans. The future of California’s historic wetfish industry hangs in the balance.

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