18 Jun 2015: Report

A Little Fish with Big Impact
In Trouble on U.S. West Coast

Scientists are concerned that officials waited too long to order a ban on U.S. Pacific sardine fishing that goes into effect July 1. The dire state of the sardine population is a cautionary tale about overharvesting these and other forage fish that are a critical part of the marine food web.

by elizabeth grossman

One of the most spectacular fisheries collapses in U.S. history occurred off the West Coast in the 1950s, when hundreds of boats severely overfished a Pacific sardine population already in decline from a natural down-cycle. The resulting crash decimated the largest fishery in the Western Hemisphere, closed down Monterey, California’s famed Cannery Row, and so depressed sardine populations that they did not recover for nearly 40 years.

Given that record, it’s easy to understand the recent dismay of many fisheries scientists, who have watched U.S. Pacific sardine numbers plummet as fishing has continued amid another natural
Pacific sardine
Bill Abbott
The U.S. Pacific sardine population has declined an estimated 90 percent since 2007.
downturn. In April, after documenting an estimated 90 percent decline in the stock — from an estimated 1.4 million tons in 2007 to roughly 100,000 tons today — the Pacific Fishery Management Council decided to close the sardine fishery. That moratorium takes effect July 1.

The impacts are huge for the West Coast fishermen and seafood processors who have once again come to depend on sardines. In 2012, when nearly 100,000 tons of sardines were caught off the U.S. coast, this fishery was worth more than $21 million. But scientists are particularly concerned about what this means for the marine food web. Many fisheries experts, including some scientists working for the National Oceanic and
‘We’ve failed to respond quickly and that’s pushed these fish to lower levels,’ says one scientist.
Atmospheric Administration (NOAA), think the fishery closure has come too late.

Sardine populations rise and fall naturally, cycling as ocean temperatures shift. But, says Tim Essington, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences, “Fishing makes the troughs deeper.” In a paper published in March, Essington showed that overfishing worsens the magnitude and frequency of the cyclical declines of sardines and other forage fish, such as anchovies.

“The reason I wrote the paper is that I was tired of being in rooms where people say, ‘It doesn't matter what we do in fishing — it’s all about the environment,’” says Essington. “But we’ve failed to respond quickly and that’s pushed these fish to lower levels.”

In 2012, two federal fisheries biologists — David Demer, senior scientist at NOAA’s Southwest Fisheries Science Center and NOAA fisheries research biologist Juan Zwolinski — warned that fishing pressure on Pacific sardines was unsustainable given that cool ocean conditions were also depressing sardine numbers. They said it was “alarming” that the fishing industry was once again responding to a declining sardine population with “progressively higher exploitation rates targeting the oldest, largest, and most fecund fish.” The pair predicted an “imminent collapse” of sardine stocks.

Other NOAA fisheries scientists disagreed, and fisheries managers publicly criticized this assessment. Fishing industry representatives said management measures were responding adequately to the downturn. Officials dropped allowable catch numbers by 40 percent in 2013 and made further cuts in 2014. But under the existing management plan, sardine populations had to drop to today’s low levels before a shutdown of the fishery was triggered.

The impacts of the current Pacific sardine collapse are rippling through the marine ecosystem. Sardines, anchovies, herring, and other forage fish are enormously important to ocean ecosystems, playing a key role in moving food at the bottom of the food web to the top. Along the Pacific Coast, where they ply the waters of the California Current, from southern British Columbia to Baja California, sardines and anchovies are essential prey for
Seventy percent of all sea lion pups born this year may perish because of a lack of sardines.
salmon, tuna, whales, dolphins, sea turtles, and other species.

Sardines, which are exceptionally nutritious because of their high oil content, are vital to mother sea lions feeding their pups and to nesting brown pelicans. More than 70 percent of all sea lion pups born this year may perish because of a lack of sardines, NOAA scientists say. Starving pups have been seen on California’s Channel Islands, says Ben Enticknap, senior scientist and Pacific campaign manager with Oceana, a marine conservation organization.

In addition, California brown pelicans have been experiencing high rates of nesting failure and thousands have been dying. “Brown pelican have been abandoning their nests because they can’t get enough food to feed their chicks,” says Enticknap.

The Pacific sardine crash comes at a time of intense global fishing pressure on forage fish. Some are eaten fresh or canned. But huge quantities go into fishmeal for livestock and aquaculture feed. While fishmeal was once used primarily for livestock and poultry feed, it is now used mainly for aquaculture production, which has soared more than 10-fold in recent decades, from 8 million tons in 1980 to 107 million tons in 2013, according to the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. According to one study, 87 percent of the world’s forage fish — an estimated 26 million tons — are now used as food in aquaculture operations. Many scientists say this forage fish harvest is unsustainable.

Aquaculture companies say they have been making steady progress in recent years in reducing the amount of forage fish needed to produce a pound of, say, farmed salmon. Once, up to five pounds of wild fish were needed to produce a pound of salmon, but the use of vegetable proteins, algae, and other nutrients have steadily reduced that ratio in recent years.

Sardine and anchovy populations are notoriously cyclical, with warmer temperatures favoring sardines, and cooler temperatures favoring anchovies. But the growing demand for forage fish comes at a time when ocean conditions are changing worldwide. After years of cold temperatures that pushed Pacific sardine numbers lower, waters off the U.S. West Coast have begun to warm. But scientists are stumped as to why recent warmer temperatures have not led to an upturn in sardine numbers.

“The number of fish that are being produced since 2011 are the lowest we’ve ever observed,” says NOAA’s Zwolinski. “No new fish are replenishing the population” he says, noting that when overall populations are small, it’s even harder for sardines to rebuild. Sardines spawn some 100 miles offshore and normally lose as many as 90 percent of their eggs, so large populations are key to fostering the next generation.

Further confounding matters is that in the past year, what’s been described as a warm “blob” — a mass of unusually warm water — has been parked in the eastern Pacific off the North American coast. The ocean in this area
The larger problem is managing fisheries on an individual basis rather than an ecosystem-wide scale.
is now warmer than it’s been since recordkeeping began. How and if this mass of warm water may be affecting sardines is unclear. But current conditions, says California Wetfish Producers Association executive director Diane Pleschner-Steele, “are not quite like anything we’ve seen before.”

Daniel Pauly, professor at the University of British Columbia’s Fisheries Center, notes that every fish has an optimum temperature range. Fish cannot regulate their own temperatures, so when oceans warm or cool, fish either must move to find more hospitable conditions or suffer the consequences.

Some fisheries biologists believe that in the face of evidence that Pacific sardine populations were steadily declining since 2007, a fisheries ban should have been imposed earlier. Despite the decline in sardine numbers, for example, fisheries managers allowed 100,000 tons of sardines to be caught off the U.S. West Coast in 2012.

“It stands to reason that if you lay fishing on top of various vulnerabilities to changes in conditions, you make things more vulnerable,” says Carl Safina, an ocean ecologist and president of the conservation group the Safina Center. “It takes out a certain amount of resilience.”

Conservation groups such as Oceana and the Pew Charitable Trusts are calling for more protective forage fish management. Oceana is concerned that despite the fishery closure, some 7,000 tons of sardines will be allowed to be caught as bycatch as other fish are hauled in.

Mike Okoniewski, Pacific Seafood’s Alaska operations manager and fisheries policy advisor, voiced support for the sardine closure. “You have to manage responsibly,” he said. “Without the sustainability of the resources, we don’t exist.”

With the sardine fishery closed, West Coast fishermen are shifting to other species, including anchovies and squid. But the Pacific’s anchovy populations are also now low. This is also unusual, since when sardines decline, anchovies that thrive in cooler water are typically plentiful. Off the coast of Peru, where more than half the world’s anchovies are caught, populations have declined nearly 70 percent in the past year.

Steve Marx, who directs the Pew Charitable Trusts North Pacfic and U.S. oceans program, says that a larger problem is managing fisheries on an individual basis rather than an ecosystem-wide scale. “We could sit here all day and argue about sardine management — if it’s too much, not enough,


Brown Pelicans: A Test Case
For the Endangered Species Act

Brown Pelican
Brown pelicans were removed from the U.S. Endangered Species List in 2009, in what was considered a major conservation success story. But a recent crash in Pacific Coast populations of sardines, the pelican’s prime food, is posing new threats to these oddly elegant birds.
or just right,” says Marx. “We’re fighting over the last sardine rather than looking at what’s coming down the pike.”

And what’s coming down the pike is worrisome. Sardines fare better in warmer water, so theoretically they should do well as global warming heats the oceans. But it’s difficult to predict exactly how these conditions will affect ocean currents, oxygen levels, and other variables — such as the massive toxic algal bloom just detected off the U.S. West Coast — that impact marine ecosystem health. As U.S. Pacific coastal waters warm, they have been losing oxygen, which tends to reduce nutrient availability and “compress habitat,” according to David Checkley of the Scripps Institute of Oceanography. This “more than likely [will] make it a little bit tougher for sardines and perhaps exacerbate their decline,” he says.

So what’s the prognosis for Pacific sardines? Will they rebound as they have in the past? That’s the big question, particularly given climate change.

“We know the ocean is warming,” says Checkley. “When you impose natural variability on top of that, an extreme ‘natural’ event becomes even more extreme,” he says. “That’s what we’ve been seeing, and I expect we’ll see even more of that in the future.”

This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit investigative journalism organization.

POSTED ON 18 Jun 2015 IN Biodiversity Business & Innovation Energy Oceans Policy & Politics Policy & Politics Sustainability Sustainability North America 


Elizabeth, your quote of what I said is factually correct on a word by word basis:
Mike Okoniewski, Pacific Seafood’s Alaska operations manager and fisheries policy advisor, voiced support for the sardine closure. “You have to manage responsibly,” he said. “Without the sustainability of the resources, we don’t exist.”

You left out 95% of what I said, and as far as I can tell, about 95% of facts surrounding why the fishery was closed....including the fact that the survey they presently use for sardines struggles to observe them when they are around. That same survey was tossed by the STAR review later this year. It looks like you just scripted most of this from a PEW or Oceana manifesto and put in 2 industry figures quotes totally out of context so you could say it was balanced. I am very disappointed.

Please bypass me in the future when you are looking for patsies to support your agenda.

Posted by Mike Okoniewski on 18 Jun 2015

As explained to me by NOAA and other fisheries biologists – and as explained by the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC) in its stock assessment – the scientific and technical details of how sardines are counted is complex. Given the space available for the story, it wasn't feasible to describe the various methods by which the fish are counted, especially since as explained by the PFMC, multiple data sets and numbers drawn from multiple surveys or counting methods — acoustic surveys, aerial surveys, estimates from landings, or catch numbers, and egg counts — go into what becomes the official stock assessment. The fact that estimates are made and early projections and modeling results sometimes revised as part of this adds additional complexity. To delve into these details – or disagreements about iterative stock estimates – was not possible in a relatively short piece.

All experts consulted for the story agreed that sardine populations are cyclical and dramatically so. All agreed that discontinuing fishing when numbers reach a low threshold is a responsible management response. All also agreed that current ocean conditions appear to be anomalous and that their ultimate impacts on sardines are not yet known.

Posted by Elizabeth Grossman on 22 Jun 2015

While I believe the acoustic trawl survey has had some difficulties finding CPS species in shallow depths and when they are in the top ten meters of the water column, the survey being "tossed" is inaccurate (wrong) and refers to a Pacific Mackerel stock assessment.

The disagreement I have is with Ms. Grossman's article, and while I was disappointed, it was not right for me to impugn the ATM survey or the Fishery Center scientists. Our relationship with the Centers, their staffs, and leaders has improved by magnitudes and I fully support their efforts to be better informed about species that spend their lives avoiding contact with predators. We have worked collaboratively in the past and hope to do so in the future. In my opinion they are a dedicated group of individuals and we will continue to support efforts to secure adequate research and staff funding for their scientific work. I apologize for my own excesses. I will also continue when possible to maintain objective dialogue with the media. Forage fish and harvest policy is a difficult and complex issue. We want people to understand industries' perspective — the foremost principle being that we must use "best management practices" guided by the best science, MSA, and the National Standards to conserve our stocks and maintain healthy oceans for everyone's futures. Our investments depend on it.

Posted by Mike Okoniewski on 23 Jun 2015

A good article. There is a tie to warming oceans not made explicitly -- ie, toxic algal blooms are enabled by warmer waters, and they can be toxic to sardines. Indeed they have been implicated in past Pacific sardine die-offs -- eg,

The absence of a sardine boost may well be tied to that massive toxic algal bloom currently off the coast.
Posted by Mary Harte on 28 Jun 2015

The article by Elizabeth Grossman displays some serious misunderstanding and misrepresentation of the management and status of the sardine fishery in California and the west coast, and the importance of sardines to predators such as sea lions and pelicans.

The article paints a picture of reactive fisheries management, as if the managers said, “oh stock is declining we should do something,” rather than a long thought-out and pre-planned response to declines that were anticipated. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council carefully evaluated alternative harvest rules and selected a rule that balanced the impact of fishing on the viability of the fishing industry and the impact of fishing on the ecosystem. The sardine harvest rule is weighted in favor of the ecosystem, designed to leave at least 75 percent of the stock in the ocean.

The low abundance of California sardines is nothing new – in the 1970s there were only a few thousand tons of sardines, now even at current low levels there are close to 100,000 tons. Periods of low abundance or even complete absence of sardines have been documented for thousands of years from scientific research. These periods of low abundance are natural and the dependent predators have obviously adapted and survived such periods of low abundance.

The article makes it sound as if sea lions are critically dependent on sardine abundance, yet the California Sea Lions have been growing rapidly since the mid 1970s, when the sardine abundance was a few thousand tons, not the 100,000 tons now. How can sea lions be so dependent on sardines yet grew rapidly when sardines were hardly there? Pup die offs have occurred in the past due to El Nino, not due to changes in overall sardine abundance. The sea lion population has consistently grown despite El Nino, pup die offs, and historically very low sardine abundance.

Tim Essington’s work is misinterpreted. Historically fisheries management was reactive, and historically fishing pressure often rose significantly as stocks declined. This was not the case now. A harvest control rule and threshold biomass were pre-established and planned. As Essington is quoted, “But we’ve failed to respond quickly and that’s pushed these fish to lower levels,” but this was historically the case, but not in the case of the current decline in sardines.

As NOAA Fisheries Assistant Administrate Eileen Sobeck said, “Sardine fisheries management is designed around the natural variability of the species and its role in the ecosystem as forage for other species. It is driven by science and data, and catch levels are set far below levels needed to prevent overfishing. In addition, a precautionary measure is built into sardine management to stop directed fishing when the population falls below 150,000 metric tons. The sardine population is presently not overfished and overfishing is not occurring.”

Management of natural resources such as sardines always involves a trade-off between producing benefits to society such as food and employment, and impacts on the environment. The Pacific Fisheries Management Council is responsible for weighing these trade-offs and should be commended for having anticipated sardine declines and planned a fishery management system that balances human needs and impacts on other parts of the ecosystem.

Posted by Ray Hilborn on 30 Jun 2015

Sounds like everything is hunky dory according to Ray Hilborn ("Pacific Fisheries Management Council... should be commended for having anticipated sardine declines and planned a fishery management system that balances human needs and impacts on other parts of the ecosystem.") and that therefore this whole article is irrelevant?
Posted by M Leybra on 01 Jul 2015

I have been an ocean lover all my life. I am neither a scientist nor involved with the fishing industry. I do work with people and their communication methods with media and in organizations. I applaud Mike Okaniewski's walking back of some of his scathing rebuttal.

Our world is full of overheated, polarized yelling. We would all do well to learn how to cool down and find ways for the clearest information to be written up...and different points of view to coexist.

I for one am deeply afraid regarding the current multi-level die off going on on the West Coast. I anxiously await any updates the science community can offer about this gruesome situation.
Posted by Dean Walker on 12 Jul 2015

We learned nothing from Cannery Row. Just as was done with the mussel fishermen of the 1930's, the trouble was obvious, the writing was on the wall, but the regulators allowed the fishers to finish off the mussels. That is what is happening here and now. Between the sardines and the drought and the sockeye and fishing and dams and sewage and seismic tests and acidification, and soon radiation, and sonar...guess what, people? In the words of Captain Quint that fateful night on board the Orca: Farewell and adui ye faire spanish ladies..."

Joey Racano, Director
Ocean Outfall Group
Posted by joey racano on 29 Jul 2015

The Pacific Fisheries Councils, as with other
similar Councils include industry representatives
and tend to not rock the boat. It's only when
stocks reach very low, unsustainable levels that
they concede (over)fishing might have
something to do with it. Unfortunately, NOAA
Fisheries, a part of the US Dept. of Commerce,
has become an enabler of commercial fishing
interests: their interest in increasing open ocean
aquaculture and their Biological Opinion
supportig culling of piscivorous birds in the
Columbia R. instead of dam replacement.
Posted by Herb Curl on 03 Sep 2015

What impact has Fukushima radiation had on the sardine
population? We fish in La Paz, Baja for tuna, etc. 2013 was
the first time any of the local fisherman have NOT had
sardines in many generations, no one could recall such a
time. We had to use ballyhoo and fish for marlin instead.

Is this relayed to Fukushima?
Posted by Jeff on 22 Dec 2015


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elizabeth grossmanABOUT THE AUTHOR
Elizabeth Grossman's work has appeared in Scientific American, Salon, The Washington Post, The Nation, Mother Jones, Grist, and other publications. In earlier articles for Yale e360, she explored how declining bee populations threaten global food security and how scientists are using zebrafish to assess chemical impacts. This article was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit investigative journalism organization.



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