A school of sardines swims in one of the aquariums at the Monterey Bay Aquarium, in Monterey, California. Pacific coast sardines are facing a population collapse so severe that Oregon's multimillion-dollar sardine industry was shut down in summer 2015. Photo: Kelly House / The Oregonian

By Kelly House
10 April 2015

(The Oregonian) – Updated at 6:55 p.m. on 13 April 2015: The council has canceled the upcoming season.

Pacific coast sardines are facing a population collapse so severe that Oregon's multimillion-dollar sardine industry almost certainly will be shut down this summer.

Anticipating fishermen will pursue anchovies instead, ocean conservationists are pushing for pre-emptive measures to avoid repeating the collapse with another species.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council, which regulates the fishing industry off the coast of Oregon, California and Washington, is expected to vote Sunday to close the West Coast sardine fishery in response to new population estimates that indicate the species' still hasn't emerged from an eight-year plummet.

The latest figures indicate there are somewhere between 97,000 and 133,000 metric tons of adult sardines in the ocean from northern Mexico to British Columbia. That's a 90 percent dip since sardines peaked in 2007, and it puts the population below a mandatory fishing cutoff of 150,000 metric tons.

Although sardine populations are known to boom and bust, the species' downward spiral in spite of favorable water conditions has ocean-watchers worried there's more to this collapse than cyclical population trends.

"There are a lot of weird things happening out there, and we're not quite sure why they aren't responding the way they should," said Kevin Hill, a NOAA Fisheries biologist who worked on the population assessment.

Fishery managers are adding it to a list of baffling circumstances off the West Coast, including a "warm blob" that's lured subtropical fish past the northernmost limits of their typical territory, a mysterious disease that's decimating starfish and acid waters that are killing shellfish larvae.

Nobody knows how long it will take the small, silver, schooling forage fish to rebound enough for commercial fishing to resume.

New data suggest fishery managers were off in their preseason projections of sardine populations for the 2014 fishing season. The commission set catch limits for the current season, which runs through June 30, based upon that preseason data. So far, West Coast fishermen have netted roughly three-quarters of the 23,293 tons allowed this season.

Why were preseason estimates incorrect? Stock assessors thought "recruitment rates," a term used to measure reproductive success in the sardine population, would be higher. Instead, NOAA surveys indicate very few juvenile fish made it through their first year.

"The population isn't replacing itself," Hill said. [more]

Pacific sardine industry shutdown looms as species collapses


13 April 2015 (Associated Press) – Fisheries managers have decided to call off the West Coast sardine fishing season that starts in July because of rapidly dwindling numbers, hoping to save an iconic industry from the kind of collapse that hit in the 1940s and lasted 50 years.

Meeting outside Santa Rosa, California, the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted Sunday to close the season starting July 1.

It had little choice. Estimates of sardine abundance have fallen below the level for a mandatory fishing shutdown.

"We know boats will be tied up, but the goal here is to return this to a productive fishery," David Crabbe, a council member and commercial fishing boat owner, said in a statement.

The council next will decide whether overfishing has been a factor in the latest collapse, which could trigger an emergency shutdown of the current season, which runs through June. It votes Wednesday.

Made famous by John Steinbeck's novel "Cannery Row," the once-thriving sardine industry crashed in the 1940s.

It revived in the 1990s when fisheries developed in Oregon and Washington waters, but population estimates have been declining since 2006, and catch values since 2012. The reasons are not well-understood, though it is widely accepted that huge swings in populations are natural and generally are related to water temperatures.

Council member Frank Lockhart of NOAA Fisheries Service noted that several other fisheries -- such as salmon, lingcod and rockfish -- have recovered after going through steep declines. [more]

Upcoming sardine season canceled because of declining numbers

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