Gather Ye Sardines While Ye May

The sardine population off the Pacific coast has decreased so substantially and so quickly that our great state’s hugely profitable sardine fishing industry will likely go belly up by the end of the summer. Sardine numbers have dropped roughly 90 percent in the past eight years.

Mandatory Tonnage Cutoff

This is no unfounded rumor or needless industry scare. The latest figures show that there are, at most, 133,000 metric tons of adult sardines in the waters between Mexico and British Columbia, Canada. The mandatory cutoff levels for fishing the species is 150,000 metric tons. The Pacific Fishery Management Council vote today on the fate of the West Coast sardine fishery; it is expected that the Council will vote to close it.

Like those of many fish species, sardine populations are known to ebb and flow in size from year to year. However, the extremity of the decrease and its length have some marine biologists ready to declare a full-on species collapse.

“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,” NOAA Fisheries biologist Kevin Hill said. Hill worked on the recent population assessment project.

One of those "weird things" Hill mentioned.

One of those “weird things” Hill mentioned.

Errors in Preseason Estimates

A study of available data suggests that preseason estimates of the sardine population before last year’s fishing season were off the mark. Though the calculations of fishery managers were most likely fairly accurate for the expected population, the population itself was far behind expectations.

NOAA surveys show that juvenile sardines survived to adulthood in much lower numbers than usual over the past year. As Hill puts it, “The population isn’t replacing itself.”

This, in addition to steady but relatively well-regulated fishing, have led to the impending population collapse.

New Fishing Targets?

With sardines off the table, the region’s fisherfolk are expected to pursue new fishy targets. The anchovy is the most likely replacement species. NOAA fisheries do not regularly record or study anchovy numbers, and there is currently no tonnage cutoff for the species. In anticipation of this, conservationists are already lobbying for preemptive protective measures.

Photo credit: chotda / Foter / CC BY-NC-ND