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Researchers: Gulf Of California Sardine Fishery In Trouble

Sardines clump together in a school of the small fish in the Gulf of California in this undated photo
Octavio Aburto, Scripps Institution of Oceanography
Sardines clump together in a school of the small fish in the Gulf of California in this undated photo

The gulf’s sardine fishery has collapsed four times in the past 30 years, and researchers in California worry about the future of the sardine industry.

Alfredo Giron of Stanford University and Octavio Aburto of the Scripps Institution of Oceanography looked at how sardines are faring.

The study shows that there are natural boom-bust cycles where the small fish are plentiful and then scarce.

Researchers: Gulf Of California Sardine Fishery In Trouble
Listen to this story by Erik Anderson.

But commercial fishing fleets fish regardless of how many sardines there are in a given year. That pushes numbers even lower during years when environmental factors keep schools small.

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Managing the fishery could help.

“We have had four collapsed of the sardine fishery in the past couple of decades,” Giron said. “So, our study is basically proving that fishing also has an impact and if you actually account for it, you can increase the value of the fishery by at least 50 percent.”

Researchers: Gulf Of California Sardine Fishery In Trouble

There are about 100,000 local fishermen who rely on sardines for subsistence, but the massive take comes primarily from about 10 commercial fishing companies running roughly 50 boats.

Sardines are primarily sold for fish meal and or oil that is used in the pharmaceutical industry.

The commercial fleets are too efficient, according to the research, and their catch is not regulated.

That’s bad for everyone who relies on sardines for a living, but there are still options.

“Really right now, we have the model,” said Octavio Aburto, a scientist at the Scripps Institution of Oceanography. “We have the science. But I think the big discussion is in the political arena and the willingness to change the things that we have been doing in a particular way for the last 30 years.”

Commercial ships can take in up to 3,000 tons of fish a night.

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Catching so many fish when stocks are already low can be devastating for a species that is already be suffering from hotter ocean temperatures.

“The warming ocean actually means less food for some of these fisheries,” said Giron. “And probably more susceptibility to those natural boom and bust cycles exacerbated by human impact.”

Fishermen are not the only ones who suffer if the sardine numbers stay low. The small schooling fish are a primary food source for many species in the Gulf of California. Without them, other species might also decline.

“Right now, the big discussion is that is this best way to use our sardines for this resource,” Aburto said. “So not necessarily this fishery needs to disappear, but maybe a huge transformation in how this resource this fish is needed more than ever.”

The findings are published in the current edition of the Canadian Journal of Fisheries and Aquatic Sciences.