Earthjustice Sues Federal Government to Protect Overfished Pacific Sardines

Pacific sardines are key food for whales, seabirds, and salmon, yet fishery managers are failing to rebuild populations


Danika Desai, Earthjustice, (415) 217-2009,

Geoff Shester, Oceana, (831) 207-6981,

Jamie Karnik, Oceana, (907)635.8722,

On behalf of Oceana, Earthjustice sued the National Marine Fisheries Service over the agency’s failure to rebuild the Pacific sardine to healthy levels. Sardines are small schooling fish that are essential food for humpback whales, dolphins, sea lions, brown pelicans, marbled murrelets, and other animals. Unfortunately, Pacific sardine numbers have dropped by more than 98% since 2006.

Pacific sardines were officially declared “overfished” in 2019, which legally requires fishery managers to develop a rebuilding plan within two years. Instead of developing new measures to rebuild the Pacific sardine, however, the Fisheries Service chose to keep existing management measures in place — the very management measures that led to the current collapse. Even after conducting an analysis that showed sardines would not rebuild under these old management measures for at least fifty years, the agency refused to change course.

“The legal failures in the agency’s plan are clear. Pacific sardine are a public resource and essential part of ocean food webs,” said Danika Desai, associate attorney for Earthjustice. “It’s baffling that the National Marine Fisheries Service thinks the same measures that led to their collapse will somehow rebuild sardines to healthy levels. West coast wildlife can’t wait decades for the Service to provide the protection the law requires.’’

By refusing to adopt new management measures to rebuild sardines, the National Marine Fisheries Service is ignoring best available science — often from its own studies — and also is in clear violation of its legal obligations under the Magnuson Stevens Fishery Conservation and Management Act, our nation’s federal fisheries law. The law requires the Fisheries Service to implement measures to rebuild overfished fish populations to healthy levels in as short a time as possible to support a long-term sustainable fishery that does not unduly harm ocean food webs.

Pacific sardines are critical to the ocean food web, and low sardine numbers in recent years have caused dramatic hardship for some ocean predators. Between 2013-2016, more than 9,000 starving California sea lion pups and yearlings washed up on beaches, and from 2010 to 2015, brown pelicans experienced unprecedented reproductive failures along the Pacific coast because they didn’t have enough sardines and anchovies. Pacific sardines are also important prey for threatened and endangered species, including Chinook salmon, marbled murrelets, and humpback whales. The sardines are also food for more abundant species like marlins, tunas, sharks, and halibut. Despite this, the Fisheries Service failed to consider the impact that a decades-long collapsed sardine population would have on marine predators, which is in violation of the National Environmental Policy Act.

“A rebuilding plan that does not rebuild the sardine population is nonsensical, irresponsible, and violates the law. It’s astonishing how again and again fishery managers fail to learn the lessons of history and seem committed to burying their heads in the seafloor rather than taking action to rebuild this incredibly important source of food for whales, sea lions, pelicans, and other animals,” said Dr. Geoff Shester, senior scientist and California campaign director for Oceana. “Fishery managers plainly ignored best available science indicating an impending collapse and allowed catch levels that have caused yet another collapse of Cannery Row era proportions. We need immediate action that gives the population every chance to recover. Unfortunately, the Fisheries Service is committed to business as usual: the same management regime that has brought us to this point. If we don’t reverse course, we could once again be watching whales and other animals starving off our shores and a sardine population that doesn’t rebuild for decades, resulting in long-term impacts on coastal communities.”

While sardines naturally have “boom and bust” population cycles, excessive fishing pressure has exacerbated natural declines and delayed recovery. Indeed, the government’s current management approach mirrors what occurred during the infamous and disastrous “Cannery Row” collapse of sardines in the 1950s. Back then, officials reacted too slowly and allowed continued bait fishing and incidental catch during the collapse, which further depleted the population. Unfortunately, the Fisheries Service has not learned this lesson from history and continues to allow sardine to be caught incidentally and as bait, even though the population has dropped by an alarming 98% in recent years.


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