After ruling in anchovy case, future stock assessment method under debate
The federal government has about 10 weeks before it must establish a new catch limit for an anchovy fishery in northern California, and as time winds down, discussions about the fishery’s future are ramping up.
However, the talk regarding the future of the northern anchovy’s central sub-population isn’t just about a new limit.
“It’s time to bring anchovy management into the 21st century by updating catch limits each year to reflect real-time abundance data rather than a decades-old guesstimate,” Andrea Treece, a lawyer for Earthjustice, said in a release announcing U.S. District Judge Lucy Koh’s decision. Treece represented Oceana, which filed a lawsuit in November 2016 and claimed the government relied on a 25-year-old model that set the annual quota at 25,000 metric tons had become outdated.
“Instead of burying its own science and fighting its legal obligations, the Fisheries Service should simply use the data it collects every year to calculate up-to-date catch limits that protect both the anchovy population and the many ocean fish and wildlife species that depend on it,” Treece added.
Currently, the anchovy fishery is considered a monitored stock. That means it is not subject to annual stock assessments or reviews to determine a catch limit. According to NOAA Fisheries website, the last time an assessment took place on the central subpopulation occurred in 1995.
Moving the stock to an active status is something the Pacific Fishery Management Council may consider as it takes steps to respond to Koh’s ruling, said Kerry Griffin, a council staff officer responsible for coastal pelagic species. Any decision the PFMC reached on the anchovy fishery would require NOAA Fisheries’ approval.
“The topic of the central subpopulation of northern anchovy management has been on recent council meeting agendas and is on the agendas for upcoming March and April meetings,” Griffin said, who also noted the stock remained “in the monitored management category because over the last many years, harvest levels have remained relatively low and stable.”
Oceana sued because data showed the sub-population had dwindled to between 15,000 and 32,000 metric tons in 2015 and that as a result, the anchovy’s natural predators suffered harm. Data provided by the council show that between the years 2010-2017, fishermen’s harvests in California only exceeded 10,000 metric tons twice. In the other six years, the harvest was below 7,000 metric tons.
In the time since Oceana’s lawsuit, the anchovy stock has rebounded significantly. A study by the Farallon Institute showed the anchovy population reached more than 153,000 metric tons in 2016 and 1.1 million metric tons in 2017.
Griffin said because the anchovy’s stock can fluctuate, the council’s strategy is to set a conservative standard until the population or other factors show the need to revisit the strategy.
“There is broad consensus among fishery scientists that the current levels of harvest do not have more than a minimal impact on the populations, and do not affect the ability of (anchovy and other coastal pelagic) stocks to rebound after periods of low abundance,” he said. “The abundance of these stocks is largely driven by environmental conditions, including predation by marine mammals, birds, and other fish.”
Diana Pleschner-Steele, executive director for the California Wetfish Producers Association, doubted whether NOAA Fisheries could afford to conduct annual surveys for a low-production fishery. Her group believes a multi-year management plan, similar to what’s happening with the Pacific mackerel stock, makes more sense.
Given the amount of time left before Judge Koh’s deadline, it’s possible the Pacific FMC could seek to create a short-term emergency rule. However, that would still require approval from NOAA Fisheries. Griffin called such a possibility challenging.
“Right now we are focusing on maximizing opportunity for council consideration of any action related to the court order and a rulemaking,” he said.