ILWACO - After seven happy boom years, the Pacific sardine fishery appears to be going bust.

Coming off a record year in 2007, the coastwide catch limit for sardines dropped from 152,654 metric tons to 80,184 metric tons last year, cutting fishing seasons extremely short and knocking down income for nearly a dozen processors and two dozen fishing boats in the Columbia River area.

Now, it looks like 2009 will be even worse, with only 59,232 metric tons of sardines available for harvest.

That's just a third of the catch allowance in 2000, when the fishery rebounded after 60 years of decline. And it's less than half of the 2007 catch.

The amount of sardines fishermen are allowed to catch is determined largely by egg counts in southern California, and for the past two years, the counts have been grim.

So grim, sardine fishermen, processors and fish spotter pilots argue they can't be based on an accurate measure of the total population.

They say the science dictating catch limits doesn't match up with the abundance of fish they're seeing off the Oregon and Washington coasts.

"Everything we're seeing seems to be running contrary to what we're being told should be happening," said Mike Okoniewski, sardine sales manager for Pacific Seafood in Woodland.

This year, processing plants pooled about $250,000 to fund their own study of the sardines migrating north using different scientists and methods.

"We've taken matters into our own hands, Okoniewski said. "We've hired a couple scientists and gone to work to see if we can prove up our numbers."

2008-09 numbers sink

Sardine seasons are arranged in three periods: January through June, July 1 through Sept. 14 and Sept. 15 through Dec. 31.

Last year, the July season lasted little more than a month. The September opener was closed a mere eight days after the boats snapped up the meager allocation.

With even less fish to go around in 2009, the prospects for fish processors and vessels in Astoria this year aren't looking good.

"The seasons were short last year," said Cyreis Schmitt of the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife's Marine Resources Program. "We're looking at much shorter seasons again this year."

Sardines caught off the Washington and Oregon coasts have increasingly found buyers in Japan, where a depleted sardine fishery has left the market open to American product. What started in 1999 with three experimental fishing permits in Oregon grew to 16 operating boats by 2002; by 2005 there were 20, and in 2006, 25 permits were in use - all claimed by boats in Ilwaco, Astoria, Warrenton or other area ports.

In 2007, all three sardine processors at the Port of Astoria's Pier 2 warehouse expanded their operations to cash in on a burgeoning international sardine food market, supplementing sales to the Japanese longline tuna fleet. That year, the Oregon fleet had record landings of sardines. Business was booming.

Dana Ferguson, plant manager at West Bay Marketing on Pier 1, said when the harvest limits nosedived last year, the price for sardines went up to 12 cents per pound. But the fishery in Oregon reached the limit fast and got shut down before the boats could fully capitalize on it.

"There was a pretty bright light at the end of the tunnel, but we never got to it," he said.

Fishermen and processors were left with 28 or 30 days of fishing once weather was factored in, while in better years they'd have more like 60 days of work.

The high price last year meant most businesses made out OK in the end, but hourly workers had less work and were sent home early.

Now, the industry is bracing for an even trickier season.

"We're all hanging on," said Ferguson.

With the economy slumping this year, Okoniewski said the lack of catch isn't likely to drive prices up any higher than they were last year.

The meager catch limit for 2009 won't sustain all the businesses that have come to rely on sardines, he said.

"There's going to be guys going by the wayside in a year or two if this continues," said Okoniewski.

Industry, science clashThe drop in catch allowance has sparked controversy between industry and scientists over how many sardines are swimming up and down the West Coast.

Mike Burner, a sardine fishery manager for the Pacific Fishery Management Council, which sets the catch limits, said scientists have been seeing declines in sardine reproduction for the past two years based on the egg surveys they've done at the test site in southern California.

The harvest guidelines reflect those declines, he said.

"We're in the unfortunate situation where the data is showing a downward trend," he said. "We would like to have additional data to show whether that's the most accurate picture."

Okoniewski said that's not the picture fishermen and sardine spotter pilots are seeing on the water.

"On one hand you have a lot of fish spotted by fishermen and spotter pilots," he said. "On the other hand, you have scientists saying, 'We're not seeing the spawn.'"

The discrepancy prompted Okoniewski and others to question whether all the sardines swim all the way back to California to spawn.

"We don't think so," Okoniewski said.

Industry leaders point out that scientists aren't testing for spawning sardines south of the Mexican border, which might be throwing off their numbers.

Burner said one theory is the declines may be tied to a change in the ocean from a warm-water to a cold-water regime.

Sardines tend to prefer warm-water regimes, he said, while salmon prefer the colder water.

Sardine populations naturally expand and contract over time, and won't swim so far north indefinitely.

"Industry folks can look back at historic sardine landings as much as anybody," Burner said. "They're aware that at some point they won't be on the North Coast. They see now is the time before the regime changes and they're not off our coast anymore."

Okoniewski said the reason industry reps are pressing the issue is because there's a lot of money at stake in the harvest guideline numbers. By his calculation, the difference between a harvest guideline of 60,000 metric tons like they have this year and the maximum catch allowance of 200,000 metric tons would be around $28 million in fish value and $60 million in total economic impact to coastal communities.

"We don't want them to say, 'Just go out and take it,'" he said. "There's got to be scientific justification. ... We're trying to find a way to count fish versus fish eggs. And we're trying to evaluate the full range of where they are as opposed to just one small spot on the coast where they're known to spawn."

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