Feds slash sardine harvest along West Coast

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) Federal fisheries managers slashed upcoming West Coast sardine harvests by two-thirds while scientists try to get a better handle on indications the population is significantly dwindling.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council voted 7-6 Sunday in Costa Mesa, Calif., to set the commercial harvest level for California, Oregon and Washington at 5,446 metric tons for the first six months of 2014, down from 18,073 metric tons for the same period in 2013. The issue will be taken up again after a new and more complete population assessment is issued in April.

Council member Marci Yaremko of the California Department of Fish and Wildlife says the council decided to take an even more precautionary approach than management guidelines call for because the current assessment was lacking some information, such as surveys showing too few sardines are being born to replace the ones that are caught or eaten by other fish.

"Nothing is suggesting the biomass is stable," said Yaremko, who made the motion to cut the harvest. "Everything suggests a decline."

Harvests are valued at $9 million to $15 million a year. Most of the fish are exported to Asia, where some are canned and others are used as tuna bait.

It's unclear how the move will affect about 60 boats that target sardines and related species, said David Crabbe, who represents the California fishing industry on the council. It depends on whether fishermen can catch enough anchovies, mackerel and squid to make up the difference.

Crabbe had offered an amendment calling for a higher harvest level based strictly on the stock assessment and management guidelines, but it was voted down.

"I think everybody, including myself, wanted to take a conservative approach," he said. "I was trying to balance conservation and socioeconomics to take into account the needs of the industry as well as concerns over the stock."

The latest sardine assessment of 378,000 metric tons at the start of 2014 is about 28 percent of the peak in 2006, when it hit 1.4 million metric tons. The current management plan says a decline of another 60 percent, to 150,000 metric tons, would require halting sardine fishing off the West Coast.

Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, which represents the sardine industry, said she was concerned the council would depart from management guidelines and bow to political pressure.

Oceana, a conservation group, had urged the council to halt sardine fishing altogether to prevent the kind of collapse that devastated the port of Monterey, Calif., in the 1950s and persisted for decades.

"Their action might be too little a little too late," said Ben Enticknap of Oceana. "It is hopeful that they are recognizing there is a problem and they are beginning to change course. We'll find out more when we get another stock assessment later in the year."

In the 1950s, sardines were in a deep decline because of a natural cycle exacerbated by overfishing, but in the 1990s started a big rebound that restored the fishery. Populations typically drop when ocean temperatures get colder, as they have lately in conjunction with a climatic condition known as the Pacific Decadal Oscillation. When the number of sardines goes down, anchovies typically go up, and mackerel increase during the transition.

"It is just a change in (ocean) conditions," said Yaremko, the California wildlife official. "Is it cause for alarm? No. Is it case for precaution? I would say yes."

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