An April 2019 federal stock assessment adopted by the Pacific Fishery Management Council shows the Pacific sardine population is dramatically overfished. However, sardines were conspicuously absent from the updated list of overfished species recently released by the National Marine Fisheries Service (Fisheries Service), and the federal government has yet to initiate a sardine rebuilding plan, which is required by law to bring the population back to healthy levels in 10 years or less.
“We remain troubled by the government’s persistent denial and obfuscation about the status of the Pacific sardine population,” said Tara Brock, Pacific Counsel for Oceana. “The Fisheries Service is ignoring its own science and the law by failing to declare sardine overfished while simultaneously proposing to allow continued fishing on this important ocean resource.”
Pacific sardine range from British Columbia, Canada to Baja California, Mexico and are a critically important forage (food) fish for humpback whales, seals, dolphins, large whales and brown pelicans, as well as recreationally and commercially important fish like salmon, halibut, marlin and tuna. Because the United States, Mexico, and Canada all fish the same population of sardines, there is a need for cooperative management among countries; however, there are no scientific or management agreements between the three countries. This is particularly crucial given that the 2019 sardine assessment shows that the shared population has completely collapsed, while combined sardine landings from the U.S. and Mexico have exceeded the legal definition of overfishing for the last two years according to U.S. national fisheries law.
“It’s hard to watch ocean animals starve as a result of the sardine collapse, with real impacts to the marine ecosystem and West Coast fisheries,” said Dr. Geoff Shester, California campaign director and senior scientist for Oceana. “Unfortunately, history tells us that it may take a long time for the sardine population to rebound from a collapse this severe. In the meantime, it is critical we fix this clearly flawed management system to prevent overfishing and ensure an abundant sardine population that supports fisheries and ocean wildlife into the future.”
“’See no evil, hear no evil’ is not a valid approach to fishery management. The Fisheries Service’s own analysis confirmed that the sardine population is too low to sustain more fishing. Denying that science won’t change that fact that the sardine population has collapsed—it will only make the problem worse,” said Andrea Treece, Staff Attorney for Earthjustice.
Recently the Fisheries Service issued proposed regulations that will close the commercial Pacific sardine fishery for the fifth consecutive year. The most recent population assessment shows that the sardine population is projected to be 27,547 metric tons (mt) in July 2019, far below the 150,000 mt necessary for commercial fishing to occur. Despite this assessment, the agency has also proposed new rules to allow a different fishery to target these same sardines to be sold as live bait.
The sardine population is also well below the 50,000 mt threshold under which the Fisheries Service must declare sardines “overfished,” which triggers requirements for a rebuilding plan under federal law. Oceana submitted a letter to Chris Oliver, Assistant Administrator of the Fisheries Service, requesting the government immediately notify the Pacific Fishery Management Council that Pacific sardine are overfished, and to request that the Council develop measures to end overfishing and rebuild the population. Under federal law, the Fisheries Service has two years to implement a rebuilding plan for a stock that has been declared overfished. The letter also urges the government to take appropriate action at the international level to end coastwide overfishing.
For more information about the Pacific sardine collapse and an associated infographic, click here.
Oceana is the largest international advocacy organization dedicated solely to ocean conservation. Oceana is rebuilding abundant and biodiverse oceans by winning science-based policies in countries that control one third of the world’s wild fish catch. With more than 200 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution and killing of threatened species like turtles and sharks, Oceana’s campaigns are delivering results. A restored ocean means that one billion people can enjoy a healthy seafood meal, every day, forever. Together, we can save the oceans and help feed the world. Visit www.usa.oceana.org to learn more.