Continued Fishing During Decline Results in Deeper Sardine Collapse
Pacific sardine has undergone large population fluctuations for centuries and there is consensus that environmental conditions are the main factor driving the changes. However, maintaining continuous high volume fishing on the northern subpopulation of Pacific sardine when stock productivity is in rapid decline, has contributed to a stock collapse that is far greater than expected from natural fluctuations.
The continuous decline of sardine spawning stock biomass (SSB) reached historically low levels in recent years (2014-present) and 2011-2019 year classes have been among the weakest in recent history. Allowing fishermen to target and catch sardine until 2015, to kick ‘em while they’re down, has resulted in the continuous population decline. In 2018, the Pacific sardine population sank below 50,000 metric tons (MT), leading to a determination by National Marine Fisheries Service that the stock is overfished. The 2020 Pacific sardine stock assessment shows a sustained collapse in the population which has progressively declined to just 28,276 MT this year.
One of the most important safeguards in the Pacific sardine control rule is “cutoff” which recognizes that fishing during periods of low abundance can exacerbate natural declines, cause a steeper retraction and stall recovery of the sardine stock. In order to protect the delicate balance between predator and prey and fishermen in the California Current, cutoff establishes a lower biomass threshold. If the population falls below the cutoff, currently set at 150,000 metric tons, the fishery closes.
But, cutoff is set too low to protect the stock from a continued collapse. Even though there were troubling signs in 2012, 2013 and 2014 that sardine were declining, the biomass was above 150,000 MT, so we continued to kick ‘em while they’re down. Now, we are asking the Pacific Fishery Management Council to re-evaluate cutoff in light of scientific recommendations to leave 40 percent of unfished forage biomass in the ocean, or more than 400,000 MT of Pacific sardine.
When the Pacific Council convened via webinar for its April, meeting, Council members expressed concern about the sardine harvest control rule as well as the sardine stock assessment. Improving sardine management requires investment in both, but the Council is responsible for the harvest control rule, and it has the ability to modify it. We are encouraged by their interest in examining key components of the control rule to ensure we take the necessary safeguards to protect the populations from collapse when it is on the verge. Unfortunately, they did not schedule this review.
The state of the stock signals that it is time to reexamine our forage fish management to prevent irreversible damage to marine ecosystems and community harm that occurs when a forage fish population collapses. We’ll continue to urge the Council to adopt more precautionary management that will reduce the severity of natural forage fish cycles, protect dependent predators and safeguard recreational and commercial fisheries for the future.