City of Monterey, Oceana butt heads over the management of iconic sardines.
Thursday, March 29, 2012
The Cannery Row era of Monterey’s sardine industry has passed. But Pacific sardines – along with their fellow wetfish, market squid and anchovies – continue to dominate fish landings at Monterey and Moss Landing harbors.
The sardine’s cultural and economic importance to Monterey Bay makes it a politically loaded little fish. Now it’s the focus of a battle between marine conservation nonprofit Oceana and the National Marine Fisheries Service.
Oceana is pushing the courts, the state Legislature and the California Fish and Game Commission for lower sardine harvests. Pushing back: NMFS, the city of Monterey and the California Wetfish Producers Association.
Bolstering Oceana’s case is a recent study by two NMFS scientists predicting an imminent collapse of the Pacific sardine population, akin to the crash that turned Monterey’s canning industry on its head in the 1950s. Ocean conditions in the north Pacific are entering a colder period in a natural cycle known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a shift to colder waters that triggers a sardine crash and an inverse anchovy boom. Sardines are unlikely to recover when conditions change, the authors conclude, unless fishery managers ease off the catch now.
“The study is a real game-changer. It emphasizes the risk of the status quo in how we’re dealing with fisheries,” says Geoff Shester, Oceana’s California Program Director.
But Monterey Harbormaster Steve Scheiblauer says the study has come under scrutiny, including by another NMFS scientist. “Others have predicted the imminent collapse of that study,” he quips. “Nobody doubts the importance of forage species in the ecosystem, but we and others feel that Oceana’s science arguments just don’t hold water.”
Oceana sponsored a state bill, AB 1299, that would have created a policy of ecosystem-based management for forage species (tiny fish, including sardines, low on the marine food chain). The bill, supported by Oceana and opposed by the city of Monterey, passed in the state Assembly last June but stalled in a Senate committee.
Oceana sued NMFS in February, challenging the way it manages forage species. “Whales, salmon and tuna rely on these little fish,” says Earthjustice attorney Andrea Treece, representing Oceana. “There aren’t any more canneries on Cannery Row, but there are a lot of whale watching boats, and they would be affected too.”
The next hearing is scheduled for April 20 in the Northern District court in San Francisco. Oceana’s working on a related policy statement for consideration by the Fish and Game Commission; the commission’s Marine Resources Committee is to discuss it at a meeting in Monterey April 17.
But Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, says sardine harvest rates are already “excruciatingly low.” While she acknowledges the possibility of an overall sardine decline due to the Decadal Oscillation, she says recent stock surveys show an uptick – which led NMFS to more than double the sardine quota from 2011 to 2012.
Her association has moved to intervene in the lawsuit. “Oceana’s again missing the boat. They refuse to acknowledge the precautions that are already built into both state and federal wetfish management,” she says. “We have been managing with these precautionary measures for a decade.”
Shester says Oceana is only seeking broader dialogue: “We’re not talking about shutting down fisheries.”