Elizabeth Grossman (@lizzieg1) writes about the environment and science. She wrote this piece for Yale Environment 360. It was produced in collaboration with the Food & Environment Reporting Network, a non-profit investigative journalism organization. Other work by Grossman that we’ve included on The UC Food Observer website: How Europe’s regulation of pesticides could impact U.S.
It’s estimated that the U.S. Pacific sardine population has dropped by 90% since 2007. As a result, the Pacific Fishery Management Council – one of eight regional fishery management councils – decided to close the fishery as of July 1st.
The impacts are huge, and not only for fishermen and seafood processors. (Per 2012 figures, the economic value of the fishery was worth more than $21 million that year). Scientists “are particularly concerned about what this means for the marine food web.” Did the fishery closure come too late?
Sardine populations rise and fall naturally, cycling as ocean temperatures shift. But, says Tim Essington, a University of Washington professor of aquatic and fishery sciences, “Fishing makes the troughs deeper.” In a paper published in March, Essington showed that overfishing worsens the magnitude and frequency of the cyclical declines of sardines and other forage fish, such as anchovies.
“The reason I wrote the paper is that I was tired of being in rooms where people say, ‘It doesn’t matter what we do in fishing — it’s all about the environment,’” says Essington. “But we’ve failed to respond quickly and that’s pushed these fish to lower levels.”
The impacts of the collapse are being felt throughout the ecosystem.
“Sardines, which are exceptionally nutritious because of their high oil content, are vital to mother sea lions feeding their pups and to nesting brown pelicans. More than 70 percent of all sea lion pups born this year may perish because of a lack of sardines, NOAA scientists say. Starving pups have been seen on California’s Channel Islands, says Ben Enticknap, senior scientist and Pacific campaign manager with Oceana, a marine conservation organization.”
This is an incredibly well-written and thoughtful piece…today’s must-read. In it, Grossman also covers the history of the sardine fishery collapse in the 1950s, which resulted in the closure of the famed Cannery Row…and “so depressed sardine populations that they did not recover for nearly 40 years.”