In 2013, researchers from the Scripps Institution of Oceanography at the University of California-San Diego delved even further into this cycle. Using data derived from various models and simulations—including a previous study that reconstructed thousands of years of sardine and anchovy population trends based on sedimentary seafloor deposits—they came up with what they believed to be an accurate reproduction of sardine-anchovy fluctuations from 1661 to 2013. This model "showed that the sardine and anchovy fluctuations were not controlled solely by climate, as had been previously suggested," according to a writeup on Scripps's Explorations Now site. The Scripps researchers gave more weight to the role of overfishing in sardine stocks than the MBARI researchers did in 2003.
Both studies underscore the complexity of predicting the rise and fall of global fish populations. George Sugihara, another biologist at Scripps, thinks that all simulations fisheries scientists use to predict populations and set quotas are "fundamentally flawed." These models don't reflect the "dynamic complexity" of the ocean, and can't account for how a population's growth rate might vary in response to, for example, overfishing of another species or introductions of invasive species. His point is reinforced by a recent study, published in December 2013 in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, highlighting the "snowball effect" of overfishing and confirming what many have always known about the interconnectedness of different species.
In an excellent piece of reporting for the Monterey County Weekly earlier this year, David Schmalz interviewed representatives from various ocean conservation and fisheries management organizations about their conflicting opinions regarding the future of sardines. NOAA uses a specific formula to project the sardine population and set catch limits each year—a formula that the non-profit advocacy group Oceana wants to change, arguing that it's not restrictive enough. Some commercial fishermen in California, of course, think the formula is already too restrictive.
"When people think of sardines they think of Cannery Row, Steinbeck, the Aquarium," wrote Schmalz. "When people think of anchovies (which they probably don’t), they think of pizza that disgusts them." It may be time to let sardines go, a second time, and come to terms with anchovies, he suggests:
The last time sardines said see you later was a bitter goodbye. This time it isn’t, in part because of the lessons we learned when they all but disappeared. One of those lessons is simple: Do not rely on sardines for a paycheck, because they will abandon you.
Another lesson: resilience. That the Monterey area was able to reinvent itself and become a world-class tourist destination in a matter of a decade is an incredible feat. All around the U.S., there are cities in decline that have been abandoned by the industries that supported them. Monterey, years ago, was one of those cities, and the people that stayed on responded like prizefighters, establishing a sustainable industry (tourism) that will carry on for generations. As Michael Hemp says it, channelling Cannery Row old-timer James Davi: “The best damn thing is that fish went away.”
But the most important lesson their disappearance taught us – and one we are certainly still learning – is respect for the sea, and the balance of its ecosystems. When the fishery began, and truly thrived, there were so many fish in the sea it was hard for anyone to imagine they could be exhausted.
But knowing now that sardines decline naturally, we know that fishing them when they’re low robs them – and the fish who eat them – of future abundance. Whether or not to keep fishing them boils down to one comparison: What is more valuable – the $22 million that U.S. fishermen netted from sardines in 2012, or a future, booming population that will help support more whales, sea lions and dolphins, and tourists that come with them?
In "The Rise of the Sardine," Kummer argued that it was time for "Cannery Row’s signature fish [to] transcend its humble reputation" and become "a chef's staple." But Cannery Row has turned upside down again, and it may be time for a follow-up piece: "The Rise of the Anchovy."