LOS ANGELES (CN) - While the little sardine is not an attention-getting fish and has no groups dedicated to its survival, it is a pillar of the ocean food chain. Federal prosecutors have enforced controls on commercial fishermen and in the most recent case here gained the conviction of a cannery that has been hiding the extent of its catch. "Sardines are a key indicator species for the health of other fisheries we rely on for food," said prosecutor Joseph Johns of the Environmental Crimes Office.
"Overfishing," he said, "could have a devastating effect on the food chain."
In the most recent prosecution, federal agents caught wind of rumors that a cannery located on "Cannery Street" in San Pedro, the sprawling harbor next to Los Angeles, was underreporting fish catches. Agents then audited the cannery, Tri Marine Fish Company, and compared landing receipts with shipping documents sending the catch primarily to Japan, the main buyer of Pacific sardines.
The agents discovered that the numbers "magically inflated" between the landing receipt and the shipping document, said prosecutor Johns, leading to the conclusion that the cannery was under-reporting its catch.
The audit, by agents from the National Oceanic & Atmospheric Administration and from California Fish and Game, found that in September 2008, the company underreported their harvest by over 200,000 pounds, and in February 2009 they underreported over 400,000 pounds.
The cannery pleaded guilty last week to two misdemeanor counts of wildlife trafficking charges. U.S. District Court Judge Stephen Hillman sentenced the cannery to three years probation and assessed a $150,000 fine, with $40,000 going to the fishermen that were cheated by the false reporting. The fishing boats Pacific Bully, La Paloma and the Ferrigno Boy are among the ships the company will pay.
"Sardines are mainly exported to Japan, where they are used for human consumption and as bait for long line fisheries," according to an attachment to the plea agreement. "These fish are also exported to Australia where they are used to feed farmed bluefin tuna."
In recent years, scientists have found the world's fish are disappearing at an alarming rate and government councils have hotly debated the issue of overfishing. As the human population rises and global demand for fish increases, scientists have begin to warn of the eventual extinction of bluefin tuna, cod and halibut, among others.
State and federal governments now closely monitor wild-caught fish populations to determine how much of any given species can be responsibly fished in a given year. Sardines are one of five species monitored by the Pacific Council as part of a federal fisheries management plan.
They are a pelagic species, meaning they live in the water column as opposed to living near the sea floor.
There are usually two to three open sardine fishing periods each year. After the government quota has been met, an announcement is made to the industry and a date is given to the fishermen and fish businesses as to when the fishery will close.
Fishermen are required to accurately report their catches to the California Department of Fish and Game. The landing receipts help NOAA scientists study the annual population data, which in turn helps determine the economic and environmental health of local fisheries.