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Open Access Publications from the University of California

Unheeded Warnings: A History of Monterey's Sardine Fishery

  • Author(s): Payne, Stephen M.
  • et al.

This case study focuses on the rise and decline of sardine fishery at Monterey, California from 1900 until 1950. Monterey developed into the most important sardine fishing port on the West Coast of North America and one of the top fishing ports in the world during this time period.

This study is not an attempt to pinpoint the exact reason for the decline of the sardine fishery; scientists are in agreement that natural fluctuations and overfishing led to the decline. Rather, this is a study of the process of managing a natural resource. The State Legislature was responsible for the fishery and relied on California Department of Fish and Game scientists to make recommendations. In addition, the fish processors, canners and fish reductionists, felt that they were in the best position to manage the fishery and exerted a considerable influence in Sacramento. Interestingly, the fishermen themselves had little to do with the management process, basically because they were immigrants who had little political power and worked, under contract, for the processors.

The philosophical background of both the processors and fishery scientists were different. The fish processors came from a business background that developed during the Progressive Era. Their attempts to manage the sardine fishery were based on scientific management concepts; businessmen, they believed, were the best qualified people to manage an industry. In a similar manner the fishery scientists also came from a Progressive Era background and they too felt that the management of the sardine fishery should come out of the process of scientific management. However, they felt that decisions concerning the fishery should be made in light of scientific evidence, not the needs of business.

One key to the management process was that there was no significant change in the set philosophy by either the processors or the fishery scientists. The result was a constant battle between the two groups over the control of the fishery. The legislature listened to the plight of the fish processors and sardines overfished before the major parties reached an agreement over the proper way to oversee the fishery.

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