Cannery Row Repeat?
Regulators consider forage-fish catch limits; enviros warn of sardine collapse.
Thursday, December 27, 2012
Kathy Fosmark isn’t old enough to remember the collapse of Cannery Row in the 1940s. But after more than 25 years in the fishing industry, she’s sure there are plenty of fish in the sea.
“I remember fishing when I was young,” she says. “There weren’t any sardines here, then, but there were tons near Mexico.”
Fosmark, co-chair of the Alliance of Communities for Sustainable Fisheries, says declining sardine populations off the California coast are probably just the result of natural environmental fluctuations. But some scientists and conservationists are predicting a modern-day sardine collapse that could rival that of Cannery Row history.
In June, the Pacific Fisheries Management Council adopted a conservative policy regarding the management of “forage fish”—small, schooling species such as sardines, anchovies and market squid. Fisheries for new forage species, such as krill, can’t be developed in California without scientific proof they’ll be sustainable.
But representatives from Oceana, an international nonprofit dedicated to marine conservation, say the new policy is only a partial victory.
“Forage fish are the foundation of the ocean food web,” says Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California program director. “If you care about birds and healthy seafood and whales, the thing to do is protect forage fish.”
Historically, he says, forage fish haven’t been protected enough because regulators fail to consider the value of leaving the fish in the water, an omission that resulted in the federal sardine catch limit of about 66,000 metric tons for 2013.
In February, scientists at the Southwest Fisheries Science Center published a paper in The Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences predicting the collapse of the sardine population in Monterey Bay. The paper spurred Oceana’s current campaign to reduce the 2013 sardine quota, but more recent publications have attacked the paper’s conclusions.
Kerry Griffin, who staffs the Coastal Pelagic Species Management Team at the council, thinks the current sardine management plan is sufficient to prevent collapse. “Nobody knows for sure whether the stock will trend down or up in the next few years,” he says, “but our current management plan has built-in brakes. If the number of sardines goes down, so will the allowable harvest.”
Local fishermen say the sardine quota is already low enough. “It’s really dropped,” says Roger Whitney, owner of Bay Fresh Seafood in Moss Landing. “The whole 2013 season could be over in a week.”
Fosmark agrees: “I know from being in the industry myself that just because the fish aren’t here doesn’t mean they’ve died out. They’re just in warmer waters.”
On Dec. 13, the Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary Advisory Council adopted a resolution recognizing the important role of forage fish and supporting the federal mission to protect them. The resolution won’t influence the 2013 federal sardine quota, but it will support federal monitoring of the quota’s impacts on sardine populations over the coming year, and the federal mission to protect forage fish in the future.
Maybe this time, the sardines and sardine fisheries of Monterey Bay will receive get-out-of-jail-free cards.