Pacific Sardine Research

Sardine Ray Troll

Image by Ray Troll

SWFSC Image Gallery
View images of coastal pelagic species and more...

Sardine Links

The Pacific sardine was once the largest fishery in North America, with peak landings of 664,000 MT during 1936 and peak biomass (ages 2+) of 3.6 million MT during 1934 (Murphy 1966; MacCall 1979). Sardine biomass fell to less than 10,000 MT by 1965; the fish­eries collapsed; and the stock did not increase noticeably for about fifteen years (Barnes et al. 1992). Meanwhile, the demise of the Pacific sardine fishery became a well known, textbook example (Hilborn and Walters 1992) of the boon-and-bust cycles characteristic of clupeoid stocks and fisheries.

As sardine biomass declined, fisheries collapsed in a southerly direction, beginning off British Columbia (Radovich 1982). Small fisheries off central and southern Baja California, at the southern end of the sardine’s range, developed and continued after the collapse in the north was complete (Lluch-Belda et al. 1989). In addition, a substantial fishery for sardine developed in the Gulf of California (Cisneros-Mata et al. 1995). By state law, the California sardine fishery was significantly restricted in 1969 and virtually eliminated in 1972 (Wolf 1992).

Sardine science and research during and following the collapse of the historical sardine fishery were of exceptionally high quality. The historical work sets a high standard for current research and, more important, provides data and analyses that are a sound basis for comparison. Research during the historical period included large­scale tagging studies (Clark and Janssen 1945), the development of the CalCOFI program for regular and intensive ichthyoplankton sampling (Hewitt 1988), and the development of cohort analysis (Murphy 1966), also called virtual population analysis or VPA (Megrey 1989), for estimating trends in stock biomass from fisheries data. Many of these data sets (Roemmich and McGowan 1995; Jacobson and MacCall 1995) and methods (Murphy 1966; Megrey 1989) are used today to address important problems and issues.

The Pacific sardine has been growing at about 30% per year for the last 15 years, from only 6,000 tons to over a million tons. This increase, and geographical expansion, occurred during one particular state of the Pacific/North American Pattern, an index of large-scale climate. The sardine population is the most abundant forage fish from Baja California to British Columbia; and sardine larvae have been found as far north as the Aleutian chain. High resolution, paleo-oceanography has shown that equally dramatic changes in these species have occurred over the past two millennia. The re-appearance of sardine populations in the north California Current ecosystem adds a major forage base and consumer input to the system, with large expected changes in trophic structure

In recent years the sardine expansion has also fueled an expansion of the fishery for sardine off California and Mexico. Some limited fisheries have also occurred further north off Oregon, and British Columbia. The need for coast-wide cooperation in the collection and analysis of sardine data is needed.

Last modified: 6/12/2019