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Disappearing Act

While the fact that the sardine population off the West Coast is down 72% since 2006 may not mean anything to you, this drop represents the worst crash since the mid-20th century and it has far-reaching implications for thousands of species including humans.

The Los Angeles Time reports ocean predators that depend on sardines may be starving. Researchers believe 1,600 malnourished sea lion pups that washed up on shore in Southern California in 2013 were born to nursing mothers whose milk quality was compromised after they had to turn from fatty sardines to other fish. Brown pelicans, which depend on sardines for subsistence are also suffering. Neither species can turn to anchovies as an alternative food source, as they normally would, because their numbers are also down. Whales, sharks, dolphins, salmon, and tuna, could also under threat. Fishermen are affected too. In the U.S. not only has the harvest maximum been dramatically cut the fishermen often can’t find any to catch.

The sardine population off the west coast of Canada is in even worse shape yet Canada continues to up quotas. The vanishing of the Canadian fish is part of a process that could mean they all disappear for decades, says Juan Zwolinski of the University of California at Santa Cruz. The New Scientist reports acoustic results show that the fish have also become smaller over the past decade, partly because of chillier water. The fattest sardines migrate farthest north, so the shrinking fish could help explain Canada's shortage and smaller fish reproduce less. While the reason for the decline is still unclear scientists believe the drop could be due to overfishing aggravated by the Pacific Decadal Oscillation, a climate cycle, that brings cold, sardine-unfriendly water to the area.

So what you may ask? Sardines are one of the most nutritional foods on Earth. Rich in numerous nutrients they promote optimal health including cardiovascular and bone health. Sardines are also rich in protein, which provides the human body with amino acids that create new proteins, the basis for most of the body's cells and structures. The Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch program lists Pacific sardines as a “best choice” for people seeking sustainable seafood. Unfortunately the time may have arrived to reevaluate that ranking.