Environmental groups such as Oceana complain that the sardine population is collapsing just as it did in the mid-1940s. They blame “overfishing” as the reason and maintain that the fishery should be shut down completely (“Starving sea lions spotlight overfishing,” Viewpoints, April 14).
In truth, Pacific sardines are perhaps the best-managed fishery in the world. The current rule – established in 2000 and updated last year with more accurate science – sets a strict harvest guideline. If the water temperature is cold, the harvest rate is low. And if the population size decreases, both the harvest rate and the allowable catch automatically decrease.
It’s inaccurate and disingenuous to compare today’s fishery management with the historic sardine fishery collapse that devastated Monterey’s Cannery Row. During the 1940s and ’50s, the fishery harvest averaged more than 43 percent of the standing sardine stock. Plus, there was little regulatory oversight and no limit on the annual catch.
Since the return of federal management in 2000, the harvest rate has averaged about 11 percent, ranging as low as 6 percent. Scientists recognize two sardine stocks on the West Coast: the northern stock ranges from northern Baja California to Canada during warm-water oceanic cycles and retracts during cold-water cycles. A southern or “temperate” stock ranges from southern Baja to San Pedro in Southern California. The federal Pacific Fishery Management Council manages only the northern stock.
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Doing the math, our current fishery harvest is less than a quarter of the rate during the historical sardine collapse. The so-called “sardine crash due to overfishing” mantra now peddled by Oceana isn’t anything of the sort. It’s simply natural fluctuations that follow the changing conditions of the ocean, reflected in part by water temperature.
California’s wetfish industry relies on a complex of coastal species including mackerel, anchovy and squid, as well as sardines. Sardines typically school with all these species, so a small allowance of sardine caught incidentally in these other fisheries will be necessary to keep wetfish boats fishing and processors’ doors open.
Sardines are critically important to California’s historic wetfish industry. This industry produces on average 80 percent of total fishery catches, and close to 40 percent of dockside value. A total prohibition on sardine harvests could curtail the wetfish industry and seriously harm California’s fishing economy.
D.B. Pleschner is executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association.