The Collapse of California Sardines and the Brief Rise of the Oregon Pilchard

I have been thinking about the ramifications of the collapse of the California sardine fishery in the 1940’s, thanks to re-reading a very good dissertation completed in 2003 by Gregory Cushman, who is now at the University of Kansas in its history department. His dissertation, with its marvelous title, The Lords of Guano, is about Peru and its attempts to manage its guano birds and the fish stocks the birds depend on. It’s a fascinating look at a complex series of environmental, political, and scientific interactions, and it includes a long section dealing with the early days of the anchoveta fishery.

What I found most interesting were the parallels between what had happened in Peru in the 1940s, and what I have been learning about the development of Oregon’s fisheries during the 1930s. Both fisheries developed in response to international pressures. And one of those pressures was the drive to turn first sardines and then anchovies into fishmeal and fish oil, the two most profitable sectors of the industry. California processing equipment was moved to Coos Bay in 1935. According to Greg, California equipment was transferred to Peru and producing fishmeal by 1945.

California sardines (Sardina caerulea) were the basis for the California fishing industry, starting in 1896. By 1914, it was the largest fishery in the United States (Arthur McEvoy says somewhere that it was the largest fishery in the world, and based on a single stock of fish). During the war, the sardines were needed for protein. But after the war ended, there was an increasing demand to use more of the catch to produce fishmeal. That led to the creation of floating canneries, processing whole fish for their oil and meal, and operating outside three-miles and the jurisdiction of the state.

McEvoy, in his excellent book, The Fisherman’s Problem, tells the story of the conflict between state and federal biologists over whether the fluctuations in the sardine catch were a sign that the stock was overfished. The federal biologists sided with the industry and argued the catch was fine. The California Fish and Game biologists, headed by Frances Naomi Clark, argued that too many fish were being taken and the stocks were in danger of collapse. The scientists tried to ensure that most of the catch was processed for humans, but the industry pushed to make oil and fishmeal. With the end of the war, the industry pushed to have more of the catch processed for meal and oi. In the 1920s, they began The processors operating floating canneries outside three miles, beyond the state’s jurisdiction and away from regulations that limited the percentage of the catch that could reduced.

“The enterprise proved successful,” wrote Clark drily. By 1936 the floaters took 250,000 tons, or 32 percent of the entire catch along the Pacific coast. But as labor costs increased and sardines dwindled, Clark reported that by the end of 1938 all floaters had ceased operations off the California coast. At least some of that processing equipment went north to Oregon.

According to Janet Gilmore in her 1986 study, The Oregon Fish Boat, the Oregon legislature in 1935 changed its regulations to allow sardines to be used for reduction. With the change in the law, Gilmore wrote that “four plants for receiving and reducing pilchards to oil sprang up in the Coos Bay area almost overnight, and a fleet of some 75 purse seiners arrived from Monterey each carrying a crew of six to eight Italians or Portuguese to catch fish. A year later, however, the great numbers of pilchards had apparently vanished, the Californians departed as quickly as they had arrived and the plants closed down.”

That sent me to the old issues of the Fish Commission Research Briefs, and in the August of 1948 issue, I found an article by George Yost Harry Jr., laying out the details for what he called the Oregon pilchard fishery. In addition to the Coos Bay plants, three pilchard plants were also started in Astoria. The industry peaked in 1939, with a catch of 22,000 tons. Harry’s graph covers about fifteen years: there are three peaks, in 1935, 1939, and 1941. The trajectory is steeply downward.

I read Harry’s paper about the same time I came across a 1939 publication by Frances Clark, “The Sardine: International Aspects of its Life History and Exploitation,” that she wrote for the Sixth Pacific Science Congress of the Pacific Science Association, meeting in 1939 in San Francisco. I’ve been interested in Clark for many years. She was the only woman in the United States to head a fisheries research unit and she was a strong voice—unfortunately in the wilderness—for the conservation of sardine stocks.

In the paper, Clark points out that tagging of sardines off California and British Columbia revealed that they were the same stock. The fish spawned in Southern California waters between March to June and in their second summer, they moved, north, with the oldest and largest fish reaching British Columbia. “Throughout its entire life and along its entire range of distribution the sardine population is exploited by man,” Clark wrote.

Her table shows a fishery in both British Columbia and California by 1918. Washington boats begin landings in 1935 and Oregon boats in 1936. The California floating plants land 3,810 tons in 1930 and increase to 254,000 in 1936. Their percentage of the catch drops rapidly to 43,890 in 1938.

So what does this all mean? Just that capital was very fluid, and so was processing equipment. The movement of boats from one fishery to another, and from the U.S. to Mexico and Latin America is one thing, but processing equipment also moved, transfers that would be much more difficult to trace. But I think it is obvious from these two papers how quickly fisheries developed in the 1930s and how tightly coupled events were, from British Columbia to the warm waters off Peru. The collapse of California sardines was an indicator of what was going to happen to the anchovy stocks.

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One Response to The Collapse of California Sardines and the Brief Rise of the Oregon Pilchard

  1. This is really a big challenge to California sardine fishery. This can affect a lot of the fishermen who only depends on this kind of work.

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