GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Federal regulators on Wednesday approved an early closure of commercial sardine fishing off Oregon, Washington and California to prevent overfishing.
The decision was aimed at saving the West Coast sardine fishery from the kind of collapse that led to the demise of Cannery Row, made famous by John Steinbeck's novel of the same name set in Monterey, California.
Meeting outside Santa Rosa, California, the Pacific Fishery Management Council voted to direct NOAA Fisheries Service 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.
Frank Lockhart of NOAA Fisheries Service estimated it would take one to two weeks to notify fishermen and bring sardine fishing to a close.
Earlier this week, the council shut down the next sardine season, which was set to begin 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 fears that without action sardines could soon reach the status of being overfished.
The council did not take Wednesday's decision lightly and understood the pain the closure would impose on the fishing industry, said council member Michele Culver, representing the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife. She added that it was 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 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."
Mike Okoniewski, a seafood processor from Washington who serves on an advisory panel, told the council 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.