Pacific Sardine (Sardinops sagax). Photo: Herb Gruenhagen

By Holly Moeller
22 Aprl 2015

(Stanford Daily) – Last week, a 20-million-dollar industry hit the brakes when the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to close the West Coast sardine fishery, effective immediately.

It’s unusual for a fishery to be shuttered so abruptly (the current season would normally have run another two months until the end of June), but certainly not unwarranted. In the last eight years, the sardine population has plunged by 91%. With the population on the verge of (or perhaps already past the point of) collapse, the industry’s only hope for recovery is to pull their nets and hope the sardines bounce back.

The fate of the marine ecosystem – not just an industrial fleet of fishing vessels – hangs in the balance. Dwindling sardine numbers have been blamed for pelican nesting failures and a surge in sea lion pup strandings (both species rely on sardines as a food source). They’re not alone: sardines are a popular menu item for many coastal species. By choosing to seat ourselves at this dining table, we humans are now in competition with the rest of the oceanic food web.

Whether or not the sardines will recover remains to be seen. Collapsed fisheries – fish stocks whose numbers have fallen so low that they’re now economically unviable – can be found all over the world, particularly in places where humans have been using industrialized fishing techniques (big, motorized boats trailing miles of nets or towing seafloor-scouring trawls) the longest.

Some, like the once-famed cod fishery of Georges Bank off the coast of New England, have failed to recover despite decades of fishing closures and restrictions. This collapse could be permanent: the ecosystem may have shifted into a new regime, one that no longer has a place for a thriving cod population.

Other fisheries – sturgeon and eel on the Hudson River; the blue walleye of the Great Lakes –have been gone so long that today they’re all but forgotten.

Given how damaging these collapses are, why are they still happening?

Fisheries crash because we’re bad at predicting their population dynamics — and even worse at regulating our fishing fleet to compensate. In part, our predictions are limited by uncertainty: not only is it tricky to count a mobile fish population that’s hidden below the waves, but it’s also incredibly hard to predict what next year’s oceanic conditions will be, much less how the fish will respond to them. But even when science does make good predictions (biologists have been warning us about an upcoming sardine collapse for years), management often fails to respond. Even oversight agencies can drop the ball: Seafood Watch, the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s widely adopted consumer sustainable fish guide, labels the Pacific coast sardine fishery as a “best choice,” though they do note the fishery’s potential volatility. [more]

(No) more fish in the sea

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