"In a time of universal deceit telling the truth is a revolutionary act." -George Orwell

U.S. West Coast Sardine Population Collapses, 91% Decline Prompting Ban On Commercial Fishing 2 Months Early

In Uncategorized on April 21, 2015 at 8:32 pm

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Oldspeak:”This is a huge step,this is one of the most lucrative fisheries in California, so to completely shut it down is a huge deal… We believe the harm has been irreparable and will already have ramifications for decades to come… We’ve basically reduced the carrying capacity of the ecosystem to support the populations of other species that depend on sardines. The more fish we take, the more it is going to make that situation even worse.” Geoffrey Shester, California campaign director for Oceana

The collapse this year is the latest in a series of alarming die-offs, sicknesses and population declines in the ocean ecosystem along the West Coast. Anchovies, which thrive in cold water, have also declined over the past decade due largely to fluctuating ocean temperatures and a lack of zooplankton, their food of choice…The number of herring seen in San Francisco Bay has fluctuated wildly, reaching a historic low in 2009….Record numbers of starving sea lions have recently been washing up on beaches in California because there aren’t enough sardines and anchovies for pups to eat. Fisheries scientists estimate that 70 percent of sea lion pups will die this year due to a lack of food…Brown pelicans, too, have suffered from mass reproductive failures and are turning up sick and dead in California and Oregon. A 2010 study by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Geological Survey and other scientific organizations found that many of the starving and emaciated pelicans are eating worms and other prey inconsistent with their normal diet of anchovies and sardines.” -Peter Fimrite

“Utterly unsurprising, given the reality:Phytoplankton — which form the base of ocean food chains — have declined 40 percent since 1950..The trend is linked to warming of the surface of the oceans….The die-off could affect climate, fisheries and ocean health…In oceans around the world, there has been a surprisingly large and extensive decline in phytoplankton — the tiny algae that keep marine food webs afloat. So when the most abundant and essential part of the ocean food wed starts dying off, you’re gonna see things like this. The fact that humans are overfishing is just accelerating the inevitable. The real story here is the entire marine food web is in the process of collapse. Expect to see more stories like this as time passes and conditions worsen.” -OSJ

By Peter Fimrite @ The San Francisco Gate:

The sardine population along the West Coast has collapsed due to changing ocean conditions and other factors, including allegations of overfishing, prompting regulators Monday to cancel fishing next season and schedule a vote this week on an immediate emergency ban.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council agreed to close the fishery from Mexico to the Canadian border starting July 1, when the 2015 season begins, after federal scientists documented a 91 percent decline in sardine numbers along the West Coast since 2007.

The council, a 19-member policymaking organization made up of fishery representatives from California, Oregon, Washington and Idaho, scheduled a vote Wednesday on whether to take the bigger step of immediately halting sardine fishing. The current season would go until June 30 or until between 3,000 and 4,000 metric tons of the schooling fish are hauled out of the water, fulfilling this season’s quota.

“This is a huge step,” said Geoffrey Shester, the California campaign director for Oceana, an international conservation organization that has been fighting for eight years to lower the annual sardine take and implement stricter regulations. “This is one of the most lucrative fisheries in California, so to completely shut it down is a huge deal.”

Causes of crisis

A lack of spawning caused by unfavorable ocean conditions was blamed for the decline, but fishery biologists say faulty abundance estimates contributed by allowing regulators to set sardine fishing limits too high. It was a problem that scientists have been warning fishery managers about since 2012, Shester said.

“There’s a management failure here,” said Shester, whose group filed a lawsuit in 2011 demanding action. A judge refused to hear the case on grounds that it was not filed in a timely fashion, but the case is now on appeal.

“They didn’t respond fast enough to the decline,” said Shester, who blamed overfishing for worsening an already bad situation. “Now we find ourselves in a crisis situation.”

Don McIsaac, the management council executive director, said sardine populations often fluctuate, and cold water over the past three or four years has lowered the birth rate.

“Sardines like warm water,” McIsaac said, adding that staff biologists ruled out overfishing as a cause. “Their spawning plummets when it gets cold.”

The dilemma harkens back to the mid-1950s when the Monterey Bay canneries of author John Steinbeck fame began failing, mostly as a result of overfishing. Stiff quotas and catch limits required by the 1976 Magnuson-Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act helped save the sardines. The population of the tiny epipelagic fish increased throughout the 1990s.

Monterey Bay is once again the Bay Area hub of sardine fishing, but the oily pilchards can also be caught off the coast of San Francisco. Huge quantities of the nutrient-rich fish are hauled up at the Channel Islands in Southern California and along the Oregon coast, where fishermen are now catching as much as 65 tons a day of the schooling pescados. The only spot where sardines are known to be currently spawning is off the coast of Oregon.

The sardine fleet has been known to bring in between $10 million and $20 million in annual revenue from sales in recent decades, Shester said.

Sardines are mostly sold for bait. The fish are generally frozen in big blocks for use in commercial long-line fishing and for feed at Australian and Japanese blue fin tuna farms. There are some efforts, including among local Indian tribes, to promote it as a healthy local delicacy.

Severe downturn

The sardine population peaked in about 2007, according to a March 19 report issued by scientists at the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. But things recently took a turn for the worse. This season’s quota was set at 23,293 metric tons based on biomass estimates calculated last year, but the National Marine Fisheries Service report concluded the estimates were “unrealistically high.” The sardine population, it said, is about 26 percent lower than the estimates because of a lack of spawning due to poor ocean conditions in 2014.

Sardine numbers — which can only be measured using their collective weight — have dropped from 1,037,000 metric tons in 2007 to 96,688 metric tons, a 91 percent decline, the report said.

“We believe the harm has been irreparable and will already have ramifications for decades to come,” Shester said. “We’ve basically reduced the carrying capacity of the ecosystem to support the populations of other species that depend on sardines. The more fish we take, the more it is going to make that situation even worse.”

The collapse this year is the latest in a series of alarming die-offs, sicknesses and population declines in the ocean ecosystem along the West Coast. Anchovies, which thrive in cold water, have also declined over the past decade due largely to fluctuating ocean temperatures and a lack of zooplankton, their food of choice.

The number of herring seen in San Francisco Bay has fluctuated wildly, reaching a historic low in 2009.

Record numbers of starving sea lions have recently been washing up on beaches in California because there aren’t enough sardines and anchovies for pups to eat. Fisheries scientists estimate that 70 percent of sea lion pups will die this year due to a lack of food.

Sick pelicans

Brown pelicans, too, have suffered from mass reproductive failures and are turning up sick and dead in California and Oregon. A 2010 study by the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, the U.S. Geological Survey and other scientific organizations found that many of the starving and emaciated pelicans are eating worms and other prey inconsistent with their normal diet of anchovies and sardines.

Strange diseases have also been proliferating in the sea. Large numbers of sea lions have recently been found convulsing with seizures caused by a neurotoxin found in algae blooms or red tides. The blooms suddenly proliferate for unknown reasons, cover large areas and infuse shellfish, mussels, anchovies, sardines and other filter feeders with toxins that are then consumed by sea lions.

The number of epileptic sea lions has been growing for at least a decade, according to researchers.

The fishery management council, which is required by the Magnuson-Stevens Act to close ocean fishing if the number of fish do not reach conservation objectives, did not place limits on the sardine trade that supplies recreational fishers with bait. Nor are there additional limits on the quota for anchovies, which are also in decline, Shester said.

The council allows up to 7,000 metric tons of sardines to be caught annually as bycatch, meaning it is not the targeted fish. That includes 1,000 metric tons granted to the Quinault Indian Nation, along the port of Washington. Mistakenly netted sardines cannot make up more than 40 percent of a single catch, according to the rules.

“It’s a serious situation,” McIsaac said of the closure. “It’s a great disappointment and financial hardship on many ports up and down the coast, but this is being done to try to make things better.”

________________________________________________________________________________________________

Peter Fimrite is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. E-mail: pfimrite@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @pfimrite

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