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California Sardine Fishery Continues Collapse, Likely Won't Reopen This Year

The sardine population is continuing to collapse, according to a new assessment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.(jasonwebber01/morguefile)
The sardine population is continuing to collapse, according to a new assessment by the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.(jasonwebber01/morguefile)
February 29, 2016

LOS ANGELES - A new federal assessment shows the population of sardines off the West Coast has continued to plummet; it's a third lower than last spring, even though the entire sardine fishery was closed in 2015.

The news means the fishery is very unlikely to reopen until at least 2017.

Geoff Shester, Ph.D., California campaign director for the nonprofit advocacy group Oceana, says scientists have been warning the Pacific Fishery Management Council and the National Marine Fisheries Service about severe overfishing for years.

"They warned of a population collapse and the fishery management body basically turned a blind eye and continued moving forward with business as usual," he says. "And now they're blaming ocean conditions for this collapse."

Shester says the population was collapsing before ocean warming caused by El Nino.

Scientists now believe the sardine population is down 93 percent since 2007, which is starving species such as sea lions and pelicans that feed on the sardines.

In 2015, 3,000 sea lions washed up on shore and researchers estimate that in recent years 70 percent of sea lion pups have died.

Shester says the situation would be even worse if they hadn't closed the fishery last year, but it was still too little, too late.

"When fishing pressure occurs during a decline, which is exactly what happened here," says Shester. "It puts the stock at such dramatically low levels it impedes any recovery potentially for decades."

Shester says fishermen, mainly in Monterey, Santa Barbara and Los Angeles, have had to switch to catching squid and anchovies, which are now facing population pressures.

From 2009 to 2014, California fishing crews brought in an average of almost $4 million worth of sardines per year.

Suzanne Potter, Public News Service - CA