Federal fishery managers have banned nearly all sardine fishing off the U.S. West Coast for the second straight year in a move hailed by conservation groups as key to protecting decimated California sea lion herds.

Pacific sardine populations have plunged by 90 percent since 2007, prompting the Pacific Fishery Management Council to vote Sunday to extend its prohibition on virtually all fishing of the small oily fish within 200 miles of the California, Oregon and Washington coasts.

The sardine collapse has rippled up the food chain and has been linked to deaths of sea lions and brown pelicans across the U.S. West Coast. Sea lion pups, emaciated and starving, have washed up on California beaches.

“Their mothers can’t find enough food, and have to search further and further for longer and longer periods of time,” said Ben Enticknap of Portland-based environmental advocacy group Oceana.

The El Nino ocean warming phenomenon as well as normal multi-decade ocean cycles, are factors in the decline of the sardine population, said Enticknap, whose nonprofit is urging regulators to adopt a longer-term approach to addressing sardine populations. Climate change may also play a role, he said.

“If you are fishing that population too hard as it is crashing, the science shows that will drive those populations down more quickly,” he said.

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