Federal fisheries regulators close West Coast sardine season to prevent overfishing

Federal regulators on Wednesday approved an early closure of commercial sardine fishing off Oregon, Washington and California to prevent overfishing.

Their 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 halt the current season as early as possible, affecting about 100 fishing boats. The season normally would end June 30.

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.

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.

However, it was necessary because of a new assessment of sardine stocks showing they were much lower than estimated last year, when harvest quotas were set.

The once-thriving sardine industry crashed in the 1940s. 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. The reasons are not well-understood, though it is widely accepted that huge populations 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.