Shortly after John Steinbeck’s Cannery Row was published in 1945 the sardine fishery he immortalized collapsed, taking with it the ramshackle seaside villages of canners that sprouted up in Monterey to accommodate the once booming industry. Now it seems regulators are determined to return to those grim days after the Pacific Fishery Management Council approved a 2013 catch level of 66,495 metric tons of sardines for a fishery that is once again careening towards collapse.
“It is frankly unbelievable, that the Council recognizes its current management is outdated and needs to be revised, yet year after year they continue to set quotas that are driving the population to collapse,” said Geoff Shester, California Program Director for Oceana.
Sardine population dropped 33 percent from last year and has been declining for six years. A study published in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences earlier this year warned of a severe collapse in the sardine fishery unless precautionary measures were taken. Those warnings, evidently, have been ignored.
“The current catch levels are set without considering how much needs to be left in the ocean to support a healthy food web, and without considering other recreationally and commercially important fish species that need to eat sardine to thrive,” Shester said.
While sardines do have economic value out of the water, in 2011 west coast landings were worth $9.7 million (most of that catch was exported as aquaculture feed or bait), the economic argument for keeping more sardines in the water can be far more compelling. By comparison, in 2009, ocean-based tourism and recreation on the U.S. west coast dependent on healthy forage fish like sardines brought in over $18 billion in Gross Domestic Product, as reported by the National Ocean Economics Program.
If the Pacific sardine population collapses it would not be an isolated incident. As documented in a report last year by Oceana, sardines and other forage fish represent a crucial part of the food web of the Pacific coastal ecosystem, critical to the diets of everything from whales to seabirds. They even play a (not insignificant) role in sequestering carbon according to a recent study by researchers at Rutgers and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science.
Learn more about forage fish and why, though small, they need to be protected.