Today, the Pacific Fishery Management Council failed to take action to rebuild the overfished Pacific sardine fishery off the U.S. West Coast, instead adopting a “status quo management” approach. The decision follows the continued decline of the sardine population and ignores science showing that the current management approach will not rebuild the population and will instead drive it to even lower levels. Sardines are an important food source for humpback whales, dolphins, seals, sea lions, brown pelicans, and larger fish like tunas and sharks.
A 2020 study by federal fishery scientists determined that the sardine population has declined 98% since 2006. The National Marine Fisheries Service declared Pacific sardine “overfished” in 2019, triggering legal requirements to establish a rebuilding plan. This crash in the Pacific sardine population and insufficient conservation actions parallel the infamous sardine crash that ended the iconic Cannery Row era over 60 years ago.
“Fishery managers have failed to learn from the mistakes of history, and if they don’t act soon we’ll be doomed to repeat them and continue on an irresponsible pathway that will devastate the sardine population and its prospects for recovery,” said Dr. Geoff Shester, senior scientist at Oceana. “It is disappointing that again California wildlife officials, federal managers, and the fishing industry are disregarding the science in order to avoid making hard choices. Today’s decision is a failure of responsible fishery management.”
Pacific sardines are a key forage species in the California Current Ecosystem off the U.S. West Coast. In response to an emergency petition by Oceana in 2015, fishery managers closed some sectors of the fishery, but continue to allow the commercial harvest of sardines sold as “live bait” and the incidental catch of sardines in other commercial fisheries like squid and mackerel. Despite the sardine crash, the federal government continues to set catch limits for these species as if the stock was increasing. Fishermen in Baja California, Mexico also catch Pacific sardine, but there is no international coordination to promote sustainable coastwide management.
Sardine populations are known to boom and bust, however, science shows that fishing exacerbates natural declines and delays recovery. During the sardine collapse in the 1950s, fishery managers did not take action soon enough, and continued to allow incidental catch and bait fishing as sardine declined. Ultimately, this failure to limit the fishery resulted in the California legislature putting a moratorium on all sardine fishing in 1974, and the population did not recover until the 1990s.
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 225 victories that stop overfishing, habitat destruction, pollution, and the killing of threatened species like turtles and sharks, Oceana’s campaigns are delivering results. A restored ocean means that 1 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.