Federal fishery regulators on Wednesday approved an early closure of the commercial sardine season off Oregon, Washington and California -- shutting down the harvest of the highly sought fish for at least the next 14 months.
Meeting in Rohnert Park, the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to direct NOAA Fisheries to halt the current season as early as possible, affecting about 100 fishing boats with sardine permits, though far fewer are actively fishing at the moment. The season normally would end June 30.
The council decided earlier in the week to shut down the 2015-16 sardine season, which was to start July 1.
The action was taken based on revised estimates of sardine populations, which found the fish were declining in numbers faster than earlier believed, and on fears that without action sardines could soon reach the status of being overfished.
The council acted over protests from some in the fishing industry, and members said they understood the pain the closure would impose on some communities and workers.
Council member Michele Culver, representing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the shutdown is necessary because a new assessment of sardine stocks showed they were much lower than estimated last year, when harvest quotas were set.
"We may be in an overfished state in a couple of years," she said.
Ben Enticknap of the conservation group Oceana urged the council to take emergency action, arguing that sardines have been overfished since 2009 due to declining reproduction. He added that 90 percent of this year's class of sea lion pups were starving for lack of sardines to eat.
"The sardine populations have crashed 91 percent since 2007," he said after the vote. "We would have liked to see this happen much sooner, but now we can start to rebuild this sardine population that is so important to the health of the ocean."
But Mike Okoniewski, a seafood processor from Washington who serves on an advisory panel, told the council that sardines were not being overfished, and shutting down the remainder of the current season would deprive fishing communities of $1 million worth of landings.
He added that fishermen were seeing signs of more sardines moving into Southern California waters, and large numbers of fish spawning off Oregon.
The once-thriving sardine industry crashed in the 1940s, before modern fisheries management that sets harvest quotas and tries to prevent overfishing. Since it revived in the 1990s, most of the West Coast catch is exported to Asia and Europe, where some is canned, and the rest goes for bait.
Sardine population estimates have been declining since 2006, and catch values since 2012, when they hit $21 million. The reasons are not well understood, though it is widely accepted that huge population swings are natural and generally are related to water temperatures.
Roughly 100 boats have permits to fish for sardines on the West Coast. That's about half the number during the heyday.