Plunging sardine numbers spark quick management response

Ocean Angel II gets ready to launch during a sardine fishery off the Washington coast. Fishery managers have decided against a 2015-16 season following a crash in sardine populations along the entire West Coast this spring. Managers also may pull the plug on the remainder of the 2014-15 season.

Fisheries managers have shut down this summer’s West Coast commercial sardine fishing season that begins in July, and this Tuesday, April 14, were considering an emergency shut down of the current season which doesn’t end until June 30.

Sardine numbers are dwindling quickly and the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to close the upcoming season on April 12, fearing a repeat of the collapse that hit in the 1940s and lasted for 50 years.

Then on April 13, the council announced that new information called into question whether the current season should also be shut down immediately.

There are about 2,900 remaining metric tons able to be caught.

Fishermen and processors were expecting news of next season’s closure; the topic even came up at a meeting at the port of Ilwaco earlier this month.

“While this is a sad day for all those dependent on a healthy sardine fishery, it is actually a good thing that this council is addressing the problem directly, something you don’t always see across the nation or certainly internationally,” said Frank Lockhart of National Marine Fisheries Service and a member of the Council in a statement April 13 about the closure of the 2015-16 season beginning in July.

He pointed to other times over the years that the council has restricted commercial fishing on various species — salmon, lingcod and groundfish — saying those stocks have since been able to rebound and rebuild.

“This action today paves the way for the sardine population to rebuild as soon as the ocean cycles permit,” he said.

An abundance forecast for the 2015-16 season show the sardine biomass was significantly below the 150,000 metric ton threshold for a directed (commercial) fishery. Fishermen and processors have been waiting to hear news of a cut off ever since.

The council will allow up to 7,000 pounds of sardine for small amounts of incidental catch — sardines accidentally caught by fishermen catching mackerel, for example — as well as live bait harvest, Tribal harvest and research.

The closure will affect processors and fishermen on both sides of the river. In Pacific County, Jessie’s Ilwaco Fish Company has processed sardines in the past and the emergency closure as well as next season’s closure could affect business there. Attempts to contact owner Don Alber for comment were not successful.

The Port of Ilwaco, meanwhile, will lose out on tonnage moving through its facility. That tonnage — whether it be fish or other cargo — is an important piece when it comes to lobbying for state and federal dollars.

Sardines are particularly sensitive to changing ocean conditions and their populations have fluctuated greatly over the years. Researchers believe a combination of environmental factors and overfishing contributed to the collapse in the 1940s. This time around, NOAA scientists have said ocean conditions appear mostly to blame, but a study out of the University of Washington published earlier this month suggests fishing likely does contribute a great deal to worsened conditions for many forage fish species including sardines.

The study, funded by Pew Charitable Trusts, examined 55 forage fish stocks. Of these, 27 had collapsed at one point or another, meaning they had fallen to a quarter or less of their average biomass.

The paper’s authors said that suspending fishing during times of scarcity or when populations fall to less than of a species’ long-term average would prevent most collapses — about 64 percent — with small impact on catch.

“The good news is we find that simple strategies can avoid the worst of the ecological impacts, with little costs to fisheries,” said lead author Tim Essington, a professor of aquatic and fishery sciences at the University of Washington. “Widespread application of these types of strategies would sustain the benefits people get from forage fish while allowing for sustainable fishing.”

Recommended for you

(0) comments

Welcome to the discussion.

Keep it Clean. Please avoid obscene, vulgar, lewd, racist or sexually-oriented language.
Don't Threaten. Threats of harming another person will not be tolerated.
Be Truthful. Don't knowingly lie about anyone or anything.
Be Nice. No racism, sexism or any sort of -ism that is degrading to another person.
Be Proactive. Use the 'Report' link on each comment to let us know of abusive posts.
Share with Us. We'd love to hear eyewitness accounts, the history behind an article.