With Stocks Low, Pacific Fishery Stays Closed

File image courtesy Washington Dept. of Fish & Wildlife

Published Apr 11, 2016 8:39 PM by The Maritime Executive

On Monday, the Pacific Fishery Management Council recommended the closure of the sardine fishing season off the length of the U.S. West Coast, reflecting alleged overfishing and deteriorating conditions in the marine food chain in the eastern Pacific. The council is also considering the full closure of coho and chinook salmon fisheries off the coast of the state of Washington, the first since 1994. It will select one of three proposed salmon management measures at a meeting Tuesday. 

The sardine fishery closure is the second in as many years; it was closed mid-season last year due to low stocks, but it has since fallen further, and is expected to be down by 30 percent over last year by summer. Federal rules mandate that the harvest must be closed if adult stocks fall below 150,000 tonnes, and the government estimates that there are now less than 65,000 tonnes.

Activists blame overfishing. “It’s a broken system when you allow the fishing fleet to allot 40 percent of their catch to sardines and label it as ‘bycatch’ even when the fishery is closed,” said Geoff Shester, a campaign director for Oceana. “It’s perfectly legal under the current system.”

In addition to alleged overfishing and the natural, cyclical rise and fall of the sardine population, some scientists suggest that large, persistent regions of unusually warm water in the Pacific Ocean could be to blame for low levels of fisheries productivity. In 2014, NOAA warned that temperatures across the Pacific were higher than ever recorded before; a warm body of water off Califormia called "the blob" has been present ever since. 

"If the warming persists for the whole summer and fall, some of the [species] that do well in a colder, more productive ocean could suffer reduced growth, poor reproductive success and population declines," said Nate Mantua, head of the landscape ecology team at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, in an interview with a NOAA publication in 2014. "This has happened to marine mammals, sea birds and Pacific salmon in the past. At the same time, species that do well in warmer conditions may experience increased growth, survival and abundance." 

At the time of his comments, NOAA scientists predicted that sardines could benefit from warming temperatures, but in 2015 stocks plummeted to seven percent of the level seen in 2007. Some fishermen now expect that a recovery could be as far off as 2030. 

In addition to negative effects on fishing-dependent communities along the Pacific coast, the shortage of forage fish like sardines is expected to hurt populations of marine species further up the food chain, ecologists say. 

A recent study by Professor Daniel Pauly and Dr. Dirk Zeller of the University of British Columbia Fisheries Center reported that global fish stocks have been declining more rapidly than previously known. Pauly suggests that warming ocean temperatures are putting stress on stocks already depleted by overfishing. Additionally, a widespread, unprecedented bout of coral bleaching, also attributed to warming waters, is expected to reduce habitat for tropical fish species – a primary food source for many societies in the South Pacific.