Sar­dine crash raises alarms

Ex­perts warn of peril if pop­u­la­tions of the oily fish do not re­cover soon.

The Star Malaysia - Star2 - - ECOWATCH - By TONY BARBOZA showed up on the coast in over­whelm­ing num­bers, stranded and ema­ci­ated. “We are likely to see more lo­cal events like this if sar­dines dis­ap­pear or re­dis­tribute along the coast and into deeper wa­ter,” said Selina Hep­pell, a fish­eries ecolo

THE sar­dine fish­ing boat Eileen mo­tored slowly through moon­lit waters from San Pe­dro to Santa Catalina Is­land, its wearyeyed cap­tain grow­ing more des­per­ate as the night wore on. Af­ter 12 hours and US$1,000 (RM3,100) worth of fuel, Corbin Hanson and his crew re­turned to port with­out a sin­gle fish.

“Tonight’s pretty re­flec­tive of how things have been go­ing,” Hanson said. “Not very well.”

To blame is the big­gest sar­dine crash in gen­er­a­tions, which has made schools of the small, sil­very fish a rar­ity on the US West Coast. The de­cline has prompted steep cuts in the amount fish­er­men are al­lowed to catch, and sci­en­tists say the ef­fects are prob­a­bly ra­di­at­ing through­out the ecosys­tem, starv­ing brown pel­i­cans, sea li­ons and other preda­tors that rely on the oily, en­ergy-rich fish for food. If sar­dines don’t re­cover soon, ex­perts warn, the West Coast’s ma­rine mam­mals, seabirds and fish­er­men could suf­fer for years.

The rea­son for the drop is un­clear. Sar­dine pop­u­la­tions are fa­mously volatile, but the de­cline is the steep­est since the col­lapse of the sar­dine fish­ery in the mid-20th cen­tury. And their num­bers are pro­jected to keep slid­ing. One fac­tor is a nat­u­rally oc­cur­ring cli­mate cy­cle known as the Pa­cific Decadal Os­cil­la­tion, which in re­cent years has brought cold, nu­tri­ent-rich wa­ter to the West Coast. While those con­di­tions have brought a boom in some species, such as mar­ket squid, they have re­pelled sar­dines.

If na­ture is re­spon­si­ble for the de­cline, his­tory shows the fish will bounce back when ocean con­di­tions im­prove. But with­out a full un­der­stand­ing of the causes, the crash is rais­ing alarm. An as­sess­ment last fall found the pop­u­la­tion had dropped 72% since its last peak in 2006. Spawn­ing has taken a dive too. In Novem­ber, Fed­eral fish­ery man­agers slashed har­vest lim­its by more than twothirds, but some en­vi­ron­men­tal groups have ar­gued the catch should be halted out­right.

“We shouldn’t be har­vest­ing sar­dines any time the pop­u­la­tion is this low,” said Ge­off Sh­ester, Cal­i­for­nia pro­gramme di­rec­tor for the con­ser­va­tion group Oceana, which con­tends that con­tin­u­ing to fish for them could speed their de­cline and ar­rest any re­cov­ery.

Boom and bust

The Pa­cific sar­dine is the ocean’s quin­tes­sen­tial boom-bust fish. It is short-lived and pro­lific, and its num­bers are wildly un­pre­dictable, surg­ing up and down in decades-long cy­cles in re­sponse to nat­u­ral shifts in the ocean en­vi­ron­ment. When con­di­tions are poor, sar­dine pop­u­la­tions plunge. When seas are favourable, they flour­ish in mas­sive schools.

It was one of those seem­ingly in­ex­haustible swells that pro­pelled Cal­i­for­nia’s sar­dine fish­ery to a zenith in the 1940s. And then it col­lapsed. By mid-cen­tury, sar­dines had prac­ti­cally van­ished, and in the 60s Cal­i­for­nia es­tab­lished a mora­to­rium on sar­dine fish­ing that lasted 18 years.

The pop­u­la­tion re­bounded in the 80s and fish­ing re­sumed, but never at the level of its hey­day. Since the 1940s sci­en­tists have de­bated how much of the col­lapse was caused by ocean con­di­tions and how much by over-fish­ing. Now, re­searchers are pos­ing the same ques­tion.

In re­cent years sci­en­tists have gained a deeper un­der­stand­ing of sar­dines’ value as “for­age fish”, small but nu­tri­tion-packed species such as her­ring and mar­ket squid that form the core of the ocean food web, fun­nelling en­ergy up­ward by eat­ing tiny plank­ton and be­ing preyed on by big fish, seabirds, seals and whales.

Now, they say, there is ev­i­dence some ocean preda­tors are starv­ing with­out sar­dines. Scarcity of prey is the lead­ing the­ory be­hind the 1,600 mal­nour­ished sea lion pups that washed up along beaches from Santa Bar­bara to San Diego in early 2013, said Sharon Melin, a wildlife bi­ol­o­gist at the Na­tional Ma­rine Fish­eries Ser­vice.

Melin’s re­search in­di­cates that nurs­ing sea lion moth­ers could not find fatty sar­dines, so they fed on less nu­tri­tious mar­ket squid, rock­fish and hake and pro­duced less milk for their young in 2012. The fol­low­ing year their pups

Bi­ol­o­gists also sus­pect the drop is hurt­ing brown pel­i­cans that breed on Cal­i­for­nia’s north­ern Chan­nel Is­lands. The seabirds, which scoop up sar­dines close to the ocean sur­face, have shown signs of star­va­tion and have largely failed to breed or rear chicks there since 2010.

Brown pel­i­cans were listed as en­dan­gered in 1970 af­ter they were pushed nearly to ex­tinc­tion by DDT, which thinned their eggshells. They were taken off the list in 2009 and now num­ber about 150,000 along the West Coast. Nor­mally, pel­i­cans and sea li­ons would adapt by in­stead gob­bling up an­chovies. But aside from an un­usual boom in Monterey Bay, an­chovy num­bers are de­pressed too.

“That does not bode well for ev­ery­thing in the ocean that re­lies on sar­dines to get big and fat and healthy,” said Steve Marx, pol­icy an­a­lyst for the Pew Char­i­ta­ble Trusts, a non­profit that ad­vo­cates for ecosys­tem-based man­age­ment of fish­eries.

Fish­er­men also at­test to the scarcity. The West Coast sar­dine catch os­cil­lates with the mar­ket and was val­ued at US$14.5mil (RM45mil) in 2013, ac­cord­ing to the US Na­tional Ma­rine Fish­eries Ser­vice. But Cal­i­for­nia fish­er­men pulled in just US$1.5mil (RM4.65mil) worth of sar­dines last year, pre­lim­i­nary data show.

Just a few years ago, Hanson, the sar­dine cap­tain, didn’t have to travel far from port to pull in nets bulging with sar­dines. Not any­more. If his crew catches sar­dines th­ese days, they are larger, older fish that are mostly shipped over­seas and ground up for pet or fish food. Largely ab­sent are the small and valu­able young fish that can be sold for bait or canned and eaten.

Still, when he em­barked for Catalina Is­land on a De­cem­ber evening, Hanson tried to stay op­ti­mistic. “We’re go­ing to get a lot of fish tonight,” he told a fel­low sar­dine boat over the ra­dio. Af­ter hours of cruis­ing the is­land’s shal­low waters, the voice of another boat cap­tain lamented over the ra­dio, “I haven’t seen a scratch.”

So the Eileen and other boats made an about-face for the Orange County coast, hop­ing to net sar­dines in their usual hide­outs. No such luck. By day­break, Hanson was pi­lot­ing the hulk­ing boat back to the docks with noth­ing in its holds. – Los An­ge­les Times/ McClatchy Tri­bune In­for­ma­tion Ser­vices

Fished out: Sar­dine pop­u­la­tions off the uS West Coast has dropped 72% since 2006. – Filepic

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