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Sardine Fisheries Close Early to Save Sea Lions

PHOTO: Sardine fishing on the West Coast is officially ending, over concerns that overfishing the species is affecting the food supply for predators such as sea lions. Photo credit: Geoff Shester, Oceana.
PHOTO: Sardine fishing on the West Coast is officially ending, over concerns that overfishing the species is affecting the food supply for predators such as sea lions. Photo credit: Geoff Shester, Oceana.
April 17, 2015

Commercial fishing for sardines on the West Coast now is illegal - effective immediately.

At an emergency meeting on Wednesday, the Federal Pacific Fishery Management Council decided to end the sardine fishing season now instead of on June 30. It said overfishing has contributed to a 90 percent decline in the sardine population, and new data show the existing catch limits are too high. The goal is to prevent starvation in predators such as chinook salmon, pelicans, humpback whales and especially sea lions.

Geoff Shester, California campaign director for the group Oceana, said emaciated sea lions have overwhelmed rescue centers in recent years.

"This year," he said, "70 percent of all sea lion pups will actually not survive due to their mothers not getting enough nutrition, because there's not enough sardine out there."

The decision comes days after the council cancelled next year's sardine fishing season altogether. The sardine fishing industry hauls in between $10 million and $20 million a year. Fishing crews are expected to pursue other species that don't have the same limits.

The sardine population has plummeted for multiple reasons. Shester said sardine stocks do fluctuate naturally with changing ocean temperatures, but fishing too much at the wrong time has pushed the ecosystem to a breaking point.

"Fishing has been a major contributor," he said, "making this fishery collapse much more amplified and severe than it would have been."

The decision allows for some by-catch of sardines and won't shut down fishing for other species including mackerel, herring and anchovies. Fishery managers hope these extreme measures will ensure the future of both the sardine and the sardine-fishing industry.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - CA