GRANTS PASS, Ore. — Concerned that sardine numbers may be starting to collapse, conservation groups are calling on federal fishery managers to halt West Coast commercial sardine fishing to give the species a better chance to rebound.

“If they continue fishing them hard, they will go down a lot faster, and it will take them longer to recover,” said Ben Enticknap of the conservation group Oceana, which wants a suspension through the first half of 2014.

The fishing industry counters that while there are signs sardines are going into a natural cycle of decline, fishery management has taken precautions to prevent overfishing, which was common in the past.

“Today’s precautionary management framework cannot be compared to the historic fishery, which harvested as much as 50 percent of the standing stock,” said Diane Pleschner-Steele, executive director of the California Wetfish Producers Association, which
advises the federal Pacific Fishery Management Council on sardines and related species.

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Current harvest rates range from 15 percent to 25 percent, depending on the size of stocks.

The fishery management council plans to vote Sunday in Costa Mesa, Calif., on an interim harvest quota for the first half of 2014. The council has no specific proposal before it, council staffer Kerry Griffin said.

The latest sardine assessment prepared for the council says that stocks at the start of 2014 are expected to be 28 percent of their peak in 2006, when they hit 1.4 million metric tons.