Fisheries managers on the U.S. West Coast will likely shut down sardine fishing this year as numbers decline, echoing a previous collapse that decimated a thriving industry and increasing worries that other species might be withheld from the commercial market.
Fishermen are resigned to not being able to get sardines, but they hope the Pacific Fishery Management Council will not be so concerned that it sets the level for incidental catch of sardines at zero, shutting down other fisheries, such as mackerel, anchovies and market squid, which often swim with sardines.
Sardines were a thriving fishery on the West Coast from World War I through World War II, and the cannery-lined waterfront in Monterey, California, became the backdrop for John Steinbeck's 1945 novel, "Cannery Row." The fishery industry crashed in the 1940s, and riding the book's popularity, Cannery Row became a tourist destination, with restaurants and hotels replacing the canneries.
The industry revived in the 1990s, when fisheries developed further north along Oregon and Washington waters. Today, about 100 boats have permits to fish for sardines on the West Coast, about half the number during the heyday. Much of the catch, landed from Mexico to British Columbia, is exported to Asia and Europe, where some is canned, and the rest goes for bait. West Coast landings have risen from a value of $1.4 million in 1991 to a peak of $21 million in 2012, but are again declining.
The latest estimates of how many Pacific sardines are schooling off Oregon, California and Washington have fallen below the mandatory cutoff line. The council cut harvests by two-thirds last year, and meets April 12 in California to set the latest sardine harvest.
The latest stock assessments vary between 133,000 metric tons, and 97,000 metric tons, both below the 150,000 metric tons cutoff, and less than 10 percent of the 2006 peak of 1.4 million metric tons.
The conservation group Oceana is urging the council to immediately shut down sardine fishing, and not wait until the new season starts July 1. The group wants incidental catch limits set at zero, leaving as much food as possible in the ocean for sea lions and other wildlife, and speeding the rebuilding process for sardines.
Ben Enticknap of Oceana acknowledged that sardines naturally go through large population swings, but he argued that fishing since 2007 has exceeded their reproduction rate, exacerbating the numbers collapse.