Analysis

Time to Reassess West Coast Anchovy Population

People don’t usually think much about anchovies unless they happen to be ordering a pizza or baiting a hook. But this oily little fish has been the subject of some major publicity in recent weeks, including a viral video of a massive school around the Scripps pier in Southern California and a more recent die-off of thousands along the northern coast of Oregon and in California’s Monterey Bay

These large concentrations, along with similar mass-schooling events over the past year, may cause people to think there is no shortage of this critical forage fish. However, it’s also possible that these sporadic dense patches of anchovies could be a response to changes in ocean conditions—and that these concentrations could leave them more vulnerable to depletion from fishing or predators. 

So which is it? Are there a lot of anchovies, or very few? The truth is, we just don’t know.

Northern anchovies are a major prey fish along the U.S. West Coast, nourishing everything from whales and seabirds to bigger fish, such as the salmon and tuna that are important for commercial and recreational fishing. So it's vital to find out if the anchovy population is changing. 

The last assessment of the central subpopulation of northern anchovies was completed in 1995. A lot can change in two decades, however, and the Pacific Fishery Management Council, the panel that helps manage West Coast waters, should update its estimate of these critical fish as soon as possible. 

After all, another forage fish, the Pacific sardine, is in decline after becoming the primary target of the West Coast purse-seine fleet. And now there is some evidence that purse seiners are beginning to shift to a new quarry: anchovies. The fleet has landed 10,000 tons of them this year, compared with just 6,400 tons of sardines. 

That’s in stark contrast to recent history, when anchovy landings have been a fraction of the sardine catch, which reached 127,000 metric tons as recently as 2007. Meanwhile, it’s not at all clear that the anchovy population can sustain a heightened level of fishing, because federal researchers pulling nets across the ocean surface have detected few eggs of the species over the past year. 

The population of northern anchovies, like other forage species on the West Coast, is thought to rise and fall dramatically across decades-long climate cycles. Before fishing on anchovies accelerates, fishery managers would be wise to update their assessment of the population and make sure they are leaving enough anchovies in the water to sustain the marine life that depends on them. 

The Pacific Fishery Management Council always encourages public participation. Now is the time to let the council know it's time to update the stock assessment of the northern anchovy. 

Paul Shively manages ocean conservation efforts along the West Coast for The Pew Charitable Trusts.

Footage from Scripps Pier by Scripps staff and underwater by Scripps graduate students Julia Fiedler, Sean Crosby and Bonnie Ludka.

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