The West Coast Sardine Fishery is Closed: Not Because You Eat Sardines, but Because You Don’t

Purse Seiners Off Monterey Bay. (Photo by Geoff Shester)

By Maria Finn

As a food and lifestyle writer and someone who works in the seafood industry, I’ve long encouraged people to eat the little fish, particularly sardines, herring, anchovies and other small “forage” fish that are plentiful and local to California.

This summer, the Pacific Fishery Management Council closed West Coast sardine fishing due to very low sardine numbers. In fact, since 2007 there has been a 91 percent decline documented by federal scientists.

Purse Seiners Off Monterey Bay. (Photo by Geoff Shester)

Forage fish have natural boom and bust cycles, but the sardines off the coast of California have been steadily decreasing in number. They are a critical part of the ocean food web, and their absence is speculated to be the reason for the hundreds of sea lion pups that have been washing up on California shores dead or dehydrated. Brown pelican populations in California are also suffering from their absence.

It can’t be said with certainty that sardines are being overfished. Sardines, like other forage fish have a natural boom-and-bust cycle and are very sensitive to climate changes and weather patterns. But of course, fishing during a steep population decline, like the US West Coast has done since 2007, certainly doesn’t help. These schools also pass along the coasts of Mexico and Canada, and there is not an international agreement on their management, so even if we don’t overfish them, another country may.

Right now, the West Coast sardine population is in peril, but not because people eat them, but because they don’t. West Coast sardines have not been landing on our plates, but rather they are primarily being fed to larger fish as bait through the commercial fishing industry and on fish farms. Tuna farms in Baja and Australia and have proliferated over the last 10 years and it takes —> Read More