Sardines swimming. The fish did not swim into Canadian waters this year, though fishermen farther out trawling for hake caught untold numbers in their targets' stomachs. Humpback whales, which also feed on sardines, moved further out to sea, marine experts said.

Mystery of the Shy Sardines: Empty Nets in BC Knock Out $32 Million Industry


The collapse of a $32 million commercial fishery off the coast of British Columbia has left a good 25 First Nations and other fishers without an annual sardine catch—and there is no explanation as of yet for the fishes’ failure to show up in Canadian waters.

Although previous media reports implied that the sardines were nowhere to be found, the reality is that the fishers off British Columbia keep to the shallows, and the sardines, for some unknown reason, stayed farther out at sea, marine experts told Indian Country Today Media Network.

“There was no sardine fishery in Canada but it doesn’t meant that there were no fish,” said Penny White, fisheries biologist for Quatsino First Nation, one of 25 bands holding sardine-fishing licenses. “The fish that were out there just never came in close enough to be caught.”

The fishery refers to the school of sardines that migrates all over the ocean and shows up off the coasts of Mexico, the U.S. or Canada, explained Lorne Clayton, executive director of the Canadian Pacific
 Sardine Association, which covers non-aboriginal sardine fishermen.

The water temperature was 1.5 degrees centigrade warmer than last year, Clayton said, quoting data from satellite photographs. And some species of fish will change their migrating patterns given a half-degree difference of ocean. It was a different situation than the probable lack of oxygen that killed about a million sardines off California a couple of years ago. 

RELATED: Dead Sardines=Ecosystem Out of Balance, Say Tribes

“There’s no evidence that the fishery collapsed,” Clayton said. “What we do see is that they did not come to places where they were fishable. We see evidence that the sardines were around, if not in fishable areas, because we have evidence that the hake had been feeding down deep, and the humpback whales had moved offshore,  feeding on sardines.”

There are 50 sardine-fishing licenses, half held by First Nations, but since many of those Indigenous Peoples don’t have the gear or capacity to use the licenses, they lease them out. This time, the people they leased them out to got no fish.

“Typically the sardines arrive in our waters and are fishable in July, sometime through November, December,” Clayton said. So this year they never arrived.

The occurrence, while not unheard-of, sounded an alarm among some and seemed to give credence to a yacthsman's recent report of an ocean bereft of life.

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“The sardine seine fleet has gone home after failing to catch a single fish,” the Vancouver Sun reported earlier this month. “And the commercial disappearance of the small schooling fish is having repercussions all the way up the food chain to threatened humpback whales.”

Humpbacks, said Tofino-based whale biologist Jim Darling, had dropped in number from the hundreds to sporadic sightings. 

“Humpbacks are telling us that something has changed,” Darling told the Vancouver Sun. “Ocean systems are so complex, it’s really hard to know what it means. For one year, I don’t think there’s any reason to be alarmed, but there is certainly reason to be curious.”

Sardines have disappeared from these waters before, as the newspaper pointed out. From the mid 1920s to the mid-1940s, the fishery industry on the B.C. coast pulled in on average 40,000 metric tons per year of sardines, also called pilchard.

“Then the fish mysteriously disappeared—for decades—until the first one was observed again in 1992 during a federal science-based fishery at Barkley Sound on the west coast of Vancouver Island,” the Vancouver Sun said.

Their numbers bounced back, and the industry was reborn, with up to 25,000 metric tons being harvested annually by 2013, out of an estimated population of 659,000 metric tons, the newspaper said.

While the past disappearance of sardines had been attributed to overfishing, scientists now suspect changing ocean conditions, a theory buttressed by the changing behavior of the humpback whale, which seems to be somehow linked to the sardines’ disappearance. The humpbacks are now farther out to sea, possibly feeding on alternative food sources, while sardines have been found by other trawlers in the stomachs of hake, the Sun reported.

Sardines are also scarce this year off of South Africa, Darling noted. So there is still something of a mystery as to why the silvery fish did not come closer to shore. Marine experts are hoping to find some answers in December at the annual Trinational Sardine Forum, at which all these factors will be discussed by the three nations involved—Mexico, the U.S. and Canada.

“The fish are out there, and the Americans were catching them in huge droves as we hear,” White said. “We’re going to find out more at the trinational sardine event in Mexico in December.”