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By Suzanne Potter, California News Service

January 22, 2018 (Monterey) -- A conservation group is declaring victory, as a U.S. District Court judge in Northern California has ruled that the federal government's allowable catch for northern anchovies, set in November, is far too high.

The Pacific Fishery Management Council will now have to revise the catch limit downward, to protect other species that feed on anchovies. Geoff Shester, California campaign director and senior scientist with the nonprofit group Oceana, said the federal fishery managers opted to protect commercial fishing interests and have ignored current science that shows the anchovy population is collapsing.

"So, we were fishing thousands of tons of a very scarce food resource at the time when pelicans and sea lions were literally starving to death on beaches," Shester said. "This is really a case of long-term versus short-term, and how we actually prevent over-fishing."

Shester said the feds set a limit of 25,000 tons of anchovies based on 30-year-old population estimates. And last week, the National Marine Fisheries Service proposed making that catch limit permanent.

For now, anchovy fishing will continue as normal because the current fishing quota remains in effect until regional managers come up with a new one.

Shester said Oceana's lawsuit has resulted in a rare win for wildlife in an increasingly hostile political environment.

"There's a lot of attacks by the Trump administration on science, and on the oceans. They're proposing to have oil drilling off of our coast," he said. "And so, to get a major victory like this, where science won the day, now the decisions are going to have to actually conserve the fish stock and use the available science."

Shester explained the sardine fishery collapsed several years ago, and has now been closed for three years. That put extraordinary pressure on the food chain, he said, while also compelling many fishermen to switch over to catching anchovies.