PORTLAND, Ore. (Reuters) - Federal regulators voted on Wednesday to end the current U.S. sardine season immediately in an effort to restore depleted populations of the small, oily fish.
Conservation groups, which have blamed recent large-scale sea lion and brown pelican starvation deaths on the sardine’s decline, praised the Pacific Fishery Management Council for Wednesday’s emergency vote.
The vote followed a decision on Sunday to shut down the sardine harvest for 12 months from July 1.
“The council made the responsible decision to protect the last remaining sardine and help this population,” said Ben Enticknap, senior scientist with environmental group Oceana.
“Sardines are vital forage fish for a healthy ocean ecosystem,” he said in a statement.
Regulators estimate that fewer than 150,000 metric tons of the fish are in U.S. waters, down from 840,000 metric tons as recently as 2007. U.S. sardine fishing takes place in the waters off the coast of Washington state, Oregon and California.
Experts are divided on the cause of collapsing sardine populations. Regulators at the Pacific Fishery Management Council say natural forces are largely to blame, while conservation groups argue that the council has allowed overfishing in recent years.
“While fishing is certainly part of the picture today, so are major shifts in ocean conditions,” said Michael Milstein of the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries program, which works closely with the council.
NOAA and the council maintain that warmer oceans and natural fluctuations in sardine populations are largely responsible for the recent decline.
Restricting sardine fishing could pose financial challenges for some fishermen, although most who harvest the species also capture mackerel, anchovy, or squid, according to council staff.
“In cases like this, you have to weigh short-term economic gain against the longer ecological value of starting the rebuilding process,” said Paul Shively, director of Pacific fish conservation efforts for the Pew Charitable Trusts.
“The council made a very tough decision, and they made the right decision,” he told Reuters.
It’s not clear if the globe’s other major sources of sardines, off the west coasts of South America and southern Africa, will be able to meet global demand in the absence of a U.S. harvest.
However, with much of the global sardine catch going to non-food uses such as bait and fish meal, sardine consumers might not even notice the change, Shively said.
Editing by Curtis Skinner and Paul Tait