Youth Advocate Calls for Improved Management of Anchovies Off West Coast

Science-based catch limits will help this forage fish—and the species that depend on it

Youth Advocate Calls for Improved Management of Anchovies Off West Coast
Arjun Subramanian walks along the water at an Heirs to Our Oceans summer camp in Palau in June. He is concerned about the future of northern anchovies because they are a critical food source for seabirds.
Aliyah Tadao

Arjun Subramanian doesn’t have the typical worries of a high school student. Instead, he’s concerned about northern anchovies, one of numerous small species known as forage fish that are vital to the marine ecosystem.  Northern anchovies in particular are critical prey for a huge range of wildlife off the U.S. West Coast, from whales and sharks to seabirds and salmon.

“Anchovy are too important to ignore,” says Subramanian, youth ambassador with Heirs to Our Oceans, a California-based marine advocacy organization. “It is a keystone species. If we don’t conserve anchovy, we won’t have a healthy Pacific coast ocean ecosystem for future generations.”

Because the population of these forage fish fluctuates widely under natural conditions, catch limits need to be based on the best and most recent data. Unfortunately, current limits are set using decades-old population estimates, putting at risk not just anchovies but all the marine wildlife that depend on them.

Subramanian, whose passion for marine wildlife started with family visits to the Monterey Bay Aquarium when he was 4, would like that to change, so much so that he presented his concerns to the Pacific Fishery Management Council earlier this year.

The Pew Charitable Trusts sat down with Subramanian to learn more about his interest in northern anchovies.

Q: What is Heirs to Our Oceans?

A: Heirs to Our Oceans is a youth conservation organization focused on protecting the world’s water. It was formed in May 2016 by a group of Bay Area youth who are interested in the oceans. We are learning as much as we can so we can help shoulder the decision-making responsibility regarding the health of the planet Earth, including its oceans and waterways.

Q: Why did you choose to work on anchovies?

A: The northern anchovy is an important player off the West Coast. Scientists have identified this fish as the No. 1 food source for dozens of species of wildlife. I am greatly concerned about this species, and [about] the future of the ocean food chain if we don’t have a healthy anchovy population.

Q: What are the most pressing issues affecting the anchovy population?

A: Anchovies continue to be managed using decades-old data that does not reflect their important role in the ecosystem or the fishing pressure they can face. If nothing is done to limit the number of anchovy fished when the population is low, their ability to recover and create a new generation of fish that will feed tomorrow’s world will be threatened. This could limit the productivity of the ocean, which is especially important for my generation and generations to come. Also, when there’s a low population of anchovy, the fish move closer to the coast, giving the false perception that anchovy are plentiful. That also can lead to overfishing. 

Q: What prompted you to take your concerns to the Pacific Fishery Management Council?

A: I wanted to do this for the sake of the Pacific Ocean ecosystem. Every part of our lives is affected by the ocean. Future generations are going to depend on the ocean. You may not see how your actions affect the ocean, but they still matter. 

Q: What should the council do to help ensure there are plenty of anchovies to help sustain the ocean?

A: I asked the Pacific Fishery Management Council to regularly count northern anchovy and adjust catch limits based on up-to-date scientific data instead of continuing to rely on old information and out-of-date fishing limits.

Q: What keeps you going despite the overwhelming challenges of ocean advocacy work?

A: My future depends on it. This planet is my home—our home—and I believe it’s my duty and responsibility to protect it as much as I can.


Northern Anchovies, the Most Important Prey Fish in the U.S. Pacific Ocean

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More than 50 species of marine wildlife in the California Current ecosystem depend on northern anchovies as a vital part of their diets, including seabirds, larger fish such as salmon and tuna, and marine mammals like whales and sea lions.