Fishing Not to Blame for Sea Lion Deaths

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Recent reports of sea lion strandings in California have often cited overfishing as a cause. The California Wetfish Producer's Association, in response to recent stories in the Orange County Register, notes that fishing is not to blame, and that proactive fisheries management has been in place in California for decades.

Complex, proactive management efforts that have been in place for decades to prevent overfishing in California, efforts that are working.

Recent media accounts report how sea lion pups are stranding on shore and dying in record numbers because there aren’t enough sardines and anchovies – sea lions’ favorite food – to support their growing population. For example, the Orange County Register, even after acknowledging the cyclical nature of the ocean and marine species, points to overfishing as the problem. (see story here).

“While it seems all too common these days to blame the ocean’s woes on overfishing, the truth is far different in California. Fortunately, we do have an accurate picture. It’s a graph that shows natural sardine booms and busts for the past 1,400 years,” said Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director for the California Wetfish Producers Association. “Oceanic core samples were extracted from an anaerobic trench in the Santa Barbara Channel and study findings were reported by Dr. Tim Baumgartner and others in a 1992 California Cooperative Fisheries Investigations (CalCOFI) report. The study correlated alternating periods of sardine and anchovy population recruitments and collapses related to warm and cold water oceanic cycles. Sardines tend to favor warm water cycles while anchovy favor cold.

“It’s important to note that most collapses in this timeframe occurred when there was virtually no commercial fishing. The great fluctuations experienced by sardines and anchovies have been known for a long time to be part of a natural cycle,” said Pleschner-Steele.

Fishery scientists can confirm that the recent sardine decline was not the result of overfishing. The less than 8,000 tons of sardine harvested in California in 2014 were still below the federally mandated overfishing limit.

When sardines began returning to abundance in the 1980s, they became perhaps the best-managed fishery in the world – the poster fish for effective ecosystem-based management. The current harvest control rule – established 17 years ago and updated in 2014 with more precautionary science – sets a strict harvest guideline every year that considers ocean conditions and automatically reduces the catch limit as the biomass declines.

Since federal management began in 2000, the sardine biomass estimate has declined more than 70 percent from the 2006 high of 1.3 million mt, and harvest limits have fallen from 152,564 mt in 2007 to a U.S. catch target of 23,293 mt in 2014 – an 85 percent decline. In 2015, the estimated sardine biomass fell below the established “cutoff,” the biomass level above which sardine fishing is allowed, and the directed fishery was closed. This is a perfect example of our fishery management at work to prevent overfishing.

Compare this to the 1940s and '50s when the fishery harvest averaged 43 percent or more of the standing sardine stock with little regulatory oversight and no limit on the annual catch. The historic sardine fishery collapse devastated Monterey's Cannery Row.

But that was nearly 70 years ago. The current sardine fishery harvest is less than a quarter of the rate observed during the historical sardine collapse. The current harvest regulations leave close to 90 percent of sardines in the ocean as forage for marine life.

As for anchovy, harvests have actually averaged less than 8,000 tons annually over the last 14 years. Reports often cite a new study alleging a recent anchovy “collapse,” but the study period stopped in 2011 and excluded nearshore egg and larval data where young anchovies always live and spawn. In fact, field surveys in 2015 recorded recruitment of sardine and anchovy larvae and juveniles as “the highest ever” in Central California and relatively high in Southern California. Fishermen in both Monterey and Southern California attest to the abundance of anchovy and sardine along the coast.

"Complex, proactive management efforts that have been in place for decades to prevent overfishing in California, efforts that are working,” said Pleschner-Steele.

About the California Wetfish Producers Association
The California Wetfish Producers Association is a nonprofit dedicated to research and to promote sustainable Wetfish resources. More info at http://www.californiawetfish.org.

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Diane Pleschner-Steele
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