More than 150 years ago, immigrant Chinese fishermen launched sampans into the chilly waters of Monterey Bay to capture squid. The Bay also lured fishermen fromSicily and other Mediterranean countries, who brought round-haul nets to fish for sardines.
This was the beginning of the largest fishery in the western hemisphere – California’s famed ‘wetfish’ industry, imprinted on our collective conscience by writers like John Steinbeck.
Who doesn’t remember Cannery Row?
It was the plentiful schools of fish – especially sardines that stretch from the Gulf of California to Alaska during cycles of abundance – that provided opportunity for generations of enterprising fishing families to prosper. These families helped build not only Monterey, but the ports of many other California cities, like San Diego, San Francisco and San Pedro – the fishing hub of Los Angeles.
But now, this historic industry – named for the fish that were canned wet from the sea – is under attack by extremist groups who claim overfishing is occurring. That allegation is false; fishermen have long recognized that a sustainable fishery was good for both people and fish.
When the sardine resource began its storied decline in the late 1940s, wetfish fishermen levied an assessment on their catch and contributed to the beginning of the California Cooperative Fisheries Investigations (CalCOFI). A cooperative effort between the National Marine Fisheries Service, Scripps Institution of Oceanography and the Department of Fish and Game, CalCOFI now is one of the preeminent research efforts worldwide.
Research has since documented the dynamic fluctuations in coastal pelagic ‘wetfish’ stocks, including sardine and anchovy, which alternate their cycles of abundance – sardines favoring warm water epochs and anchovy preferring cold.
Core samples from an anaerobic trench in the Southern California Bight found alternating layers of sardine and anchovy scales over a period of 1,400 years. Turns out, sardine stocks would have declined naturally even without fishing pressure.
Today the wetfish industry maintains its commitment to research with cooperative efforts ongoing for both sardine and squid.
Even though the canneries are gone due to their inability to compete on a now global marketing stage, our wetfish industry is still the backbone of California’s fishing economy – responsible for more than 80 percent of the volume and more than 40 percent of dockside value in 2010.
Fast forward to earlier this month, when an in-depth study by a panel of 13 hand-picked scientists provided recommendations on policies to protect forage fish – like anchovy, sardines and market squid – that larger species feed on.
The study by the Lenfest Forage Fish Task Force concluded that overfishing of forage species is unfortunately occurring on a global scale.
But interestingly, these scientists also identified the west coast, as different, noting that California is, “ahead of other parts of the world in how it manages some forage fish.” The region has “stricter monitoring and more conservative limits that could serve as a buffer against future crashes.”
The Lenfest Report provides a strong case that forage fish are managed better in California and the Northern California Current than anywhere else in the world. Overall, forage fisheries here account for less than two percent of total forage production (including both fished and unfished stocks), leaving 98 percent for other marine life.
Knowledgeable people understand that this is no accident. Fishing families have worked and are working with regulators to conserve California’s fisheries and coastal waters.
In fact, after a 20-year moratorium on sardine fishing, California adopted strict fishing regulations when the sardine resource rebounded. The federal government assumed management of coastal pelagic species in 1999 and approved a visionary management strategy for the west coast ‘forage’ fish harvest, maintaining at least 75 percent of the fish in the ocean to ensure a resilient core biomass. The sardine protection rate is even higher at about 90 percent.
Even so, some environmental groups are calling for deep and unnecessary cutbacks in sardine fishing in California, as well as substantial harvest reductions in other forage fish fisheries, including herring, anchovies and squid.
Touting studies with faulty calculations, activists are lobbying federal regulators to massively limit fishing, if not ban these fisheries outright.
Apparently the facts don’t matter to groups with an anti-fishing agenda. Their rhetoric leaves those not familiar with the fishing industry with the impression that overfishing is a huge problem in California.
We hope decision makers will see through the rhetoric when developing harvest policy for California’s historic, and still important, wetfish fisheries.
Ed’s Note: Steve Scheiblauer is the harbmaster for the city of Monterey.