Northern anchovy are finally catching a break. A key part of the Pacific Ocean food web, these small, nutrient-rich fish are the most important prey for more than 50 species of marine wildlife, from albacore tuna and chinook salmon to least terns and humpback whales. Despite anchovy’s outsized role in the West Coast marine ecosystem, fishery managers have used fixed catch limits that remained in place for years, no matter how much the anchovy population or ocean health declined while the limit was in effect. As a result, West Coast anchovy have been left vulnerable to overfishing during periods of low abundance. It’s one of only a few species managed with such fixed limits.
That will change in January, thanks to the Pacific Fishery Management Council (PFMC), which in November adopted a new management framework that requires regularly reviewing the size of the anchovy population and adjusting catch levels as needed based on annual abundance surveys and other information. The new framework also considers the needs of wildlife that feed on anchovy.
That’s a significant change. For more than two decades, management of California’s anchovy population has been based on information collected between 1964 and 1990—data that was clearly outdated. That approach, coupled with static, multiyear catch limits, simply doesn’t work for a species that undergoes large natural fluctuations in abundance. When the population collapses, as happened between 2009 and 2016, failing to lower the catch limit can put anchovies—as well as the coastal communities and marine wildlife that depend on them—at risk.
The new approach to anchovy management, based on annual population data and regular stock assessments, reduces the likelihood that the West Coast anchovy fleet will overfish the species when numbers are low, while helping to ensure that seabirds, whales, and other marine wildlife have sufficient prey. And the new framework gives fishery managers the tools to respond more quickly than in the past to population fluctuations caused by climate change—which experts expect to become more common in the future.
It’s taken years of effort by marine scientists, recreational fishermen, wildlife advocates, bird watchers, and ocean conservationists—among others—to persuade PFMC to modernize anchovy management. Although the council still has some work to do to fully integrate this new approach into its anchovy management plan, the framework adopted in November is a big leap forward for this small fish—and bodes well for the future of the Pacific Ocean food web.
Jos Hill is a project director and Gilly Lyons is an officer with The Pew Charitable Trusts’ conserving marine life in the United States project.