By Daina Beth Solomon
LOS ANGELES (Reuters) - West Coast fishery managers have recommended easing federal limits on commercial catches of Pacific sardine for the first time in 15 years, despite evidence of sharp declines of the tiny fish, a key food source of sea birds and marine mammals.
Under the plan approved over the weekend, the maximum harvest level allowed in U.S. Pacific waters would be raised from 15 percent to 20 percent of the sardine's estimated total biomass - less 150,000 metric tons to provide a margin of error.
The higher limits were proposed unanimously by the 14-member Pacific Fishery Management Council, one of eight advisory panels around the country that oversee commercial and recreational fishing for U.S. waters in their regions.
The recommendations are subject to approval of the National Marine Fisheries Service, a U.S. Commerce Department agency. If adopted, they would go into effect as early as next July, the start of the new sardine season.
The proposal was based on warming ocean temperatures that should help boost sardine populations and data cited by council members showing that sardine stocks, while in decline, are more productive than previously thought, Kerry Griffin, staff officer for the panel, said on Monday.
But the environmental group Oceana noted government figures show sardine stocks have plunged 74 percent during the past seven years to their lowest levels in two decades. In the past year alone, the estimated population has fallen 44 percent, according to the National Marine Fisheries Service.
The current biomass of the fish is estimated at nearly 370,000 metric tons, a fraction of stocks once ranging from 6 million to 9 million tons, said Oceana's California campaign manager, Geoff Shester.
“Our stock is already so low that we should stop fishing altogether and let it recover,” he said.
Oceana said plunging sardine populations, combined with low levels of anchovies and other small fish, were reflected in widespread nesting failures of California brown pelicans and die-offs of sea lions linked by scientists to a shortage of prey.
The West Coast’s sardine stocks comprise one of largest fisheries in the region, landing nearly 140 million pounds of fish in 2013, Oceana said in a statement.
Some is sold for human consumption, while some is sold as long line bait, recreational fishing bait and animal feed. Annually, the industry brings in between $10 million and $20 million, Griffin said.
(Reporting by Daina Beth Solomon in Los Angeles; Editing by Steve Gorman)