West Coast commercial sardine fishing for the 2015-16 season, which regularly occurs between July 1st and the following June 30th, has been banned. The decision was made yesterday by a vote of the Pacific Fishery Management Council. According to scientists, the abundance forecast for the season was far below the 150,000 metric ton required threshold.
Though there are several theories as to why — from unrealistic previous estimates to changing oceanic conditions to overfishing — the population appears decimated. On this coast, sardines have seen a 91 percent decline in number since 1997.
"While this is a sad day for all those dependent on a healthy sardine fishery, it is actually a good thing that this Council is addressing the problem directly, something you don’t always see across the nation or certainly, internationally,” said member Frank Lockhart of National Marine Fisheries Service. “We know boats will be tied up, but the goal here is to return this to a productive fishery,” member David Crabbe said.
Relatedly, a record number of sea lions have washed up on California's beaches starving for food like sardines. According to fisheries scientists, 70 percent of sea lion pups will die as a result of starvation. “They didn’t respond fast enough to the decline,” Geoffrey Shester, the California campaign director for the international conservation organization Oceana told The Chronicle.
As the Council writes, "Sardine productivity is generally linked to ocean temperatures, but it’s not a perfect relationship. For example, temperatures in the Southern California Bight have risen in the past two years, but we haven’t seen an increase in young sardines as expected." Sardines typically spawn in warmer waters, with cold water decreasing their numbers.
The decline of this particular fish isn't a new phenomenon. In the mid '50s, fishing and canning operations in Monterey Bay, the subject of John Steinbeck's Cannery Row, began to fail due to overfishing. That bay is still a sardine hub, as is the coast of San Francisco.