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May 24, 2012

The Ghosts of Cannery Row

Editor’s Note: This commentary originally appeared in the Monterey Herald.

No town knows better what happens in a fishery crash than Monterey. Our infamous Cannery Row, once the heart of a bustling sardine industry, is now occupied by restaurants and tourist shops. Sadly, we are on a path to yet another Pacific sardine crash.

In a report published in February, National Marine Fisheries Service scientists warn the sardine population off the West Coast is steeply declining and fishery managers are making the same mistakes all over again. Yet, a separate report, “Little Fish Big Impact,” by 13 pre-eminent scientists from around the world, concludes that current management of forage fish — like sardines, anchovy, and squid — is too aggressive and that catches should be cut in half.

A third study, aptly referred to as “A Third for the Birds” finds that seabirds are drastically affected when forage fish decline below one-third of their maximum numbers, which is the current situation for Pacific sardines. Hopefully these findings will be the catalyst needed to finally change the way forage species are managed.

Forage species support ocean-based recreation, fishing and tourism sectors that provide over $12 billion annually to California’s economy, and over 250,000 California jobs. Forage species are the base of the ocean food web and removing this food source from the ecosystem is like destroying the foundation of a skyscraper. The result would be an ecosystem crash taking down with it critically important industries, revenue and jobs in the state.

While they admit the population of sardines is in steep decline, the National Marine Fisheries Service more than doubled the U.S. sardine quota from 50,526 metric tons in 2011 up to 109,409 metric tons in 2012. Additionally, the service fails to account for harvest of the same sardine stock by Canada and Mexico.

Without knowing the population of market squid, managers are allowing the catch to exceed maximum historic levels. In fact, squid fishermen overfished the squid quota of 118,000 metric tons by 15 percent in 2010 and 2011. Pacific herring are recovering from a fishery collapse due to both fishing effort and impacts from the Cosco Busan oil spill.

Other forage species have no management at all, leaving room for fisheries targeting them to be developed at any time, which is all the more likely as growing aquaculture worldwide demands forage fish to feed farmed fish.

California can ensure both healthy fisheries and a vibrant coastal economy by establishing a state forage policy guiding how these species should be managed. Oceana, other groups and industry are working with the California Fish and Game Commission to prepare such a policy.

As for the forage species we are not fishing, managers should evaluate the populations, predator needs and ecological effects of fishing before allowing new fisheries. Thus far, the city of Monterey has adamantly opposed efforts by conservation organizations to establish an ecosystem-based state policy on forage species that aims to ensure a healthy ocean and viable fishing industry for future generations.

The ghosts of Cannery Row tell us that sticking to the status quo will ultimately be to the detriment of our oceans and both our local fishing community and tourism economy.

Ashley Blacow is the Pacific police and communications coordinator for Oceana. The state Fish and Game Commission meets this week in Monterey. You can take action to protect forage fish today.