Groups want to halt West Coast sardine fishing

GRANTS PASS, Ore. (AP) Concerned sardine numbers may be starting to collapse, conservation groups are calling on federal fishery managers to halt West Coast commercial sardine fishing to give the species a better chance to rebound.

"If they continue fishing them hard, they will go down a lot faster, and it will take them longer to recover," said Ben Enticknap of the conservation group Oceana, which wants a suspension through the first half of 2014.

The fishing industry counters that while there are signs sardines are going into a natural cycle of decline, fishery management has taken precautions to prevent overfishing, which was common in the past.

"Today's precautionary management framework cannot be compared to the historic fishery, which harvested as much as 50 percent of the standing stock," said Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, which represents sardine fishermen and processors. She is also vice chairman of a committee that advises the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council on sardines and related species.

Current harvest rates range from 15 percent to 25 percent, depending on the size of stocks.

The council plans to vote Sunday in Costa Mesa, Calif., on an interim harvest quota for the first half of 2014. The council has no specific proposal before it, council staffer Kerry Griffin said.

The latest sardine assessment prepared for the council says that stocks at the start of 2014 are expected to be 28 percent of their peak in 2006, when they hit 1.4 million metric tons. The current management plan for sardines says a decline of another 60 percent, to 150 metric tons, would require halting fishing off the West Coast.

Landings in Washington, Oregon and California have been 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 for bait for tuna.

Harvests have been declining since 2008, and the industry expects them to go down more in 2014, Pleschner-Steele said. While the fleet typically also fishes for anchovies, squid and mackerel, sardines have been their mainstay for years.

"The industry will survive, but it's going to be difficult," she said.

Conservationists would like sardine fishing to be cut off at least through the first half of 2014, to give time for a more complete assessment of stocks, said Enticknap of Oceana.

The council will take the issue up again in April when a new population estimate will be ready.

A February 2012 paper in the journal Proceedings of the National Academies of Sciences created a stir by asserting that colder ocean temperatures off the West Coast has started a natural decline in sardine populations, like the one in 1952 that led to the disappearance of the sardine fishery north of Monterey Bay in California. When water temperatures get colder, anchovies typically increase in numbers.

The study authors suggested that the fishery was taking too many fish and a near-term recovery was unlikely. The authors were Juan P. Zwolinski, a researcher at the University of California, Santa Cruz who's affiliated with the NOAA Fisheries Service's Southwest Fisheries Science Center, and David A. Demer, a scientist with the center.

Other NOAA Fisheries scientists disagreed, writing a rebuttal in the journal.

Kristen Koch, deputy director of the Southwest Fisheries Science Center, told the council that sardines go through large population fluctuations and are not in danger of collapse.

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