If you didn’t know better, you might think that forage fish like sardines and squid are on the brink of destruction in California.
That’s what some activists imply. However, nothing could be further from the truth.
California’s coastal pelagic “forage” fisheries are the most protected in the world, with one of the lowest harvest rates.
In addition to strict fishing quotas, the Marine Life Protection Act (MLPA) has implemented no-take reserves, including many near bird rookeries and haul out sites to protect forage for marine life.
But activists are pushing even more restrictions in the form of Assembly Bill 1299.
California already provides a science-based process to manage forage species. The federal Pacific Fishery Management Council is also developing a California Current Ecosystem Management Plan, covering the entire West Coast, not just California state waters. Further, the federal Coastal Pelagic Species Fishery Management Plan that governs these fish adopted an ecosystem-based management policy more than a decade ago.
To initiate new legislation like AB 1299 as if no regulation exists is fiscally irresponsible and disrespectful of California’s management history.
The National Marine Fisheries Service voiced concern about the bill’s redundancy and overlap with federal management, pointing out that it could actually impede ecosystem-based management.
AB 1299 won’t protect forage species because virtually all range far beyond California state waters, which only extend three miles from shore.
But the bill does jeopardize the future of California's historic wetfish fisheries, the backbone of California's fishing economy. AB 1299 restricts California fishermen unfairly, because virtually all the forage species listed are actively managed or monitored by the federal government and most species are harvested along the entire West Coast.
In this economic crisis, why would California squander millions of dollars — and sacrifice thousands of jobs — on an unfunded mandate that duplicates existing laws?
Apparently this doesn’t matter to activists, whose rhetoric claims that overfishing is occurring in California now and a change is needed.
AB 1299 proponents have made many false claims about forage species. For example, they referenced a National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) evaluation of the California Current Ecosystem, predicting a downward trend for some marine life, including squid, but failed to explain that this report was simply a draft.
The evaluation excluded Southern California waters, where 80 percent of the squid harvest occurs. A record spawning event also occurred in 2010
And consider sardines. After their decline in the 1940s, fishery managers instituted an ecosystem-based management plan that accounts for forage needs before setting harvest quotas, and reduces quotas in concert with natural declines in the resource. The harvest quota for the West Coast plummeted 74 percent from 2007 to 2011.
But activists embellished a NOAA graph to “prove” their claim that the current sardine population decline was due to overfishing. The marine scientist who developed the graph pointed out their error, stating, “You can rest assured that the U.S. has not exceeded the overfishing limit based on the rules in place today.”
In fact, the majority of California’s fishing community — municipalities, harbor districts, recreational and commercial fishing groups, seafood companies and knowledgeable fishery scientists — oppose AB 1299, seeing it as a disingenuous attempt to curtail sustainable fisheries unnecessarily.
D.B. Pleschner is executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, a nonprofit organization designed to promote sustainable wetfish resources.